Where's Helen?

The individual short segments of Edgar Oliver's one-man performance Helen & Edgar, like their subjects, have their charms: they're quirky and odd, strange yet knowingly familiar, and even in their most unusual moments have an ability to resonate with an intimate warmth, the kind resulting from sharing secrets and exposing one's vulnerabilities. Strung together to create a longer work lasting well over 90 minutes, it's not so much that they lose focus (or perhaps more accurately Edgar doesn't lose his), but the experience soon begins to feel like a visit with an acquaintance's odd uncle that's gone on way too long, leaving you hoping someone else will enter the room and announce that dinner is served, or at least have something new to talk about. 

At Cal Performances' Zellerbach Playhouse for five performances last week, Oliver, slightly stooped, wearing what looked like black pajamas, and with a voice that sounds like Peter Lorre after a mint julep or three, delivered a series of anecdotes about his life with his sister Helen and their unstable, mentally ill mother which create a vivid sense of their lives together in Savannah, Georgia, living in a decaying, ivy-clad home with a roach-filled oven. But like the family's car trips that never reach their original destinations, they wander without a connecting narrative, defined by atmosphere and reliant on a kind of voyeuristic curiosity to know more about the characters.

The first act is delivered solely from Edgar's perspective and ends abruptly (but not quickly) on an injected note of hope. It suggests a second act featuring Helen's perspective to fill us in on another side of the truth, or reveal some essential aspect of the family's life which Edgar's so far withheld. But when Oliver returns Edgar does too, and the anecdotes continue as before, eventually creating if not a complete portrait of this unusual trio making their way in a slightly unwelcoming world, one that ultimately succeeds in portraying their mutual affection and closeness and little more. Except for diehard fans of Oliver's work with the New York story-based performance non-profit The Moth, it's unlikely to be enough. The absence of Helen's, or someone else's perspective and voice eventually wears the audience down, leaving us with only Edgar and his stories, which at this length is like hearing a Faulkner novel written from only one character's point of view read aloud, and very slowly.