The strangest and most unnerving aspect of Edgar Oliver’s beautiful solo performance, Helen & Edgar, currently showing at Zellerbach Playhouse under the auspices of Cal Performances in Berkeley, is not the stories he tells about himself and his sister growing up in Savannah under the care and guidance of his disturbed mother. What’s rattling is that the well-known storyteller (a star of the non-fiction performance series, The Moth) seems to be living these narratives all over again, right in front of us. He has taken what is most essential to the memory play -- distance and perspective -- and gently cast them aside.
It’s an absolutely shocking move and forces us to float with Oliver through his memories of his mother without any guiding values. And so we feel her manias in the way a child would, and they're jarring. She's amazed that the cockroaches she allows to fester destroy an oven; rushes Oliver and his sister Helen to a motel after a ouija board informs her that a killer is near; takes midnight sojourns with the kids to spy on a man she's fallen in love with from afar; and insists, over and over again, that she is not a grownup.
Helen & Edgar has the vague outlines of Southern gothic, but Oliver's performance turns those familiar tropes into a more radical identification with madness and the love that it can inspire. He comes on stage and speaks to us and we immediately know that something is wrong. This isn’t the voice of memory -- the elegiac voice should have focus and understanding to it. Instead, Oliver’s speech patterns are affected, slightly loony, and prone to surreal turns of phrase, like “lost in the ivy, lost in the realm of the scorpions.”
We’re in a crazy mother story, but one where the child who reminisces refuses to sacrifice the unhinged parent. Oliver survives not by clawing his way to normalcy -- the therapeutic goal of most American memoirs -- but rather by continuing to find love and joy in what the memory of his mother offers. He never lets us laugh at her. We might chuckle, but not because of him.
Instead, Oliver daringly highlights his own strangeness. It’s not just his voice, but also a manner that flits somewhere between a vampire and an overly excitable child. Oliver's movements are sharp, and yet you can't help feeling that if he doesn't get these stories right, he'll explode. At times it seems as if the whole venture is just too much for him. And so this sly storyteller will amble to the side of the stage and watch, with us, a slide show of his mother’s paintings or old family pictures.
The effect is so enjoyable, strange, and beautiful that I felt that Oliver was teaching me how to behave, to learn the proper way of taking on the past and respecting all those who give us moments of joy, no matter how misguided and crazy they were.
Helen & Edgar plays until Sunday, May 8 at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley. For tickets and information go to www.calperformances.org.