Edgar and Helen: Edgar Oliver at the Under the Radar Festival

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On Sunday Edgar Oliver performed Helen and Edgar at the Under the Radar Festival at Manhattan’s Public Theater. It’s the poet, playwright and actor’s retelling of his childhood in Savannah, Georgia. The story unfolds through a series of five monologues by Oliver. He begins in childhood. Early on he echoes lines from his poem, “My Solitude”:

The three of us –

that’s what we were –

Mother, Helen and me.

The three of us.

And then there was the world,

as though we were lost in it.

Never were three more lost children

than Mother, Helen and me.

The performance is simple. I mean this in the sense that it’s unadorned: Oliver, dressed in all black, stands before a lone microphone in a halo of light. A large screen fills the wall behind him. At the beginning of his performance and during each interlude, paintings by Oliver’s mother appear on the screen, accompanied by evocative instrumental music. Banjo figures prominently, in a range of subtle shadings. From these modest elements plus his voice, which often reminds me of Peter Lorre, and storytelling instincts (aided in this regard by the input of director Catherine Burns), Oliver proceeds to establish the truth of this sentiment.

Far less simple is the picture of the trio that emerges as Oliver guides us through their hermetic existence in 1960s Savannah. His mother was a mercurial woman, prone to rages and sulks and manic episodes. She urged Helen and Edgar to reassure her that she wasn’t a grown-up, and impressed upon them time and again that the three of them were different, that they were artists. The evidence in Helen & Edgar suggests she wasn’t off base, at least in that instance. He’s an established writer and storyteller (he may prefer the word raconteur, which appears in most every rave about his work). His mother’s paintings feel almost naïve. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. At their best, they feature stark, powerful images and call to mind artists like Camille Bombois, with their darkness and strict planes.

But that talent offered no protection against the hardships she faced in daily life. No doubt many came as a result of raising children alone at that time in the south. Oliver gradually reveals the truth of his father’s absence. It never occurred to him to wonder much about fathers, Oliver tells his audience. His mother tells Helen and Edgar their father died of a heart attack at the age of forty. Their classmates are always skeptical of this explanation. As it transpires, they had good reason to be: the man died of a morphine overdose, a year after Edgar’s birth. The loss may have triggered the behaviors Oliver remembers, or it may simply have exacerbated existing problems. In either case, he has a remarkable sense of incident and of image. His mother on the rooftop, keening (his word) “Isn’t it a pity and a crying shame” is unforgettable, as is an anecdote in which he repeats the word “ivy” until it takes on the same almost mythic sense for the audience that it held for him, his sister and mother.

It’s to Oliver’s great credit how gradually he builds the smothering dependence and isolation he and Helen endured. That gradual approach is indispensable; without it, their deep, genuine love for their mother wouldn’t emerge as fully as it does, nor would their eventual break with her make the same impact it finally does. We would also miss incidents like her ill-fated crush on the local museum curator, who is gay. It’s an unfortunate fixation which ends with her on the phone to the man, crying and begging. Or her obsessive-compulsive behavior of various stripes. Her social anxiety. It’s a complex and affecting portrait, the product of endless close observation and real love, and it’s what makes Edgar & Helen an eventful, memorable seventy-five minutes of theater*.

– John McIntyre

Oliver performs Helen and Edgar three more times at the Under the Radar Festival, Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this week (Jan. 16-18). Tickets here.