Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm
At Home in a House of Horrors
by Ben Brantley, NY Times
The waitress at the Brazier Burger drive-in in Savannah got it right, sort of, when she decided that Edgar Oliver and his sister must be from Transylvania. Mr. Oliver was a little boy, and had rarely ventured far from his Georgia home, when that assessment was made. But if he talked anything like the way he does today, it was a logical assumption.
Mr. Oliver, now in his 50s, has developed a cult following as a spell-casting raconteur who sounds as if he learned to speak in the crypt of a Hammer horror movie. His vowels stretch into gaping, quavering chasms, and practically every time he pronounces the letter R, it seems to throw up a thicket of midnight darkness. This means that it’s hard not to get the shivers when he uses words like “excruciating,” “mortifying,” “scorpion,” “lurk” and even “artist.”
Now imagine the effect a child with that voice would have had on the native Georgians of the 1960s — especially a child who considered himself an artist (sorry, “ahRRtist”). Small wonder that Mr. Oliver; his sister, Helen; and Louise, the possessive and obsessive mother who shaped their world, tended to keep to themselves. You might say they lived in their own private Transylvania, a place that has nothing to do with the real country and everything to do with a state of mind in which shadows always threaten to claim you.
That is the geography explored in Mr. Oliver’s utterly absorbing and unexpectedly moving “Helen & Edgar,” at Theater 80 in the East Village. This spoken memoir was developed through the Moth, the storytelling project that has attracted a devoted national audience on radio and in live performance. At nearly two hours, “Helen & Edgar,” directed by Catherine Burns, is unusually long for a Moth story, but there is never any question of its not holding your attention.
That’s partly because few of us can resist a bedtime ghost story’s lulling and unnerving cadences, which are Mr. Oliver’s natural rhythms. But it’s also because Mr. Oliver speaks to the Transylvanian that still lurks (or luRRRRks) in most of us: the child who remembers feeling like a freak in the outside world and wondering if the only place he truly belongs is that sweet house of horrors called home.
Not that the details of your upbringing are likely to match those of Mr. Oliver’s. “Never were there three more lost children than Mother, Helen and me,” he says early in the show, savoring the woeful, fairy-tale locution.
Louise, Edgar and his year-older sister, Helen, lived in an ivy-smothered Savannah house where visitors seldom ventured, and only roaches spent much time in the kitchen. The three human residents shared a front bedroom, because Louise was scared to sleep alone. Besides, she required foot massages and the occasional Ouija board session in the middle of the night.
Life with Mother, and according to Mother, was pretty much all that Helen and Edgar knew. Neither could really remember the father who had died years earlier — of a heart attack, Louise told them (at least at first). As Mr. Oliver puts it, “We had sprung together out of eternity.”
She also warned them to beware of all other people, especially grown-ups. “I’m not like a grown-up, am I?” she would ask urgently. She performed compulsive, repetitive rituals (involving a yellow suitcase and a change purse) that she called “my foolishness.”
And she was known to lapse into periods of “sorrowful rage,” in which she would curse and keen. “Keen” as a verb is one of those words that Mr. Oliver seems to own as completely as if he had patented it.
Crazy mothers have been staples of the nonfiction best-seller lists for decades. (Hello, Mary Karr.) But Mr. Oliver remembers mama without recrimination. He instead presents a child’s-eye view that finds enchantment in the tight web of ritual his mother wove around them. (“In the beautiful depths of our indolence together” is how he begins an account of one summer.) Of course there came a point — and we all reach that point growing up — when the web began to smother Helen and Edgar, and they plotted their escape.
I’m choosing not to provide too many details. You need to hear and see them as they are spun out by Mr. Oliver, who, when he performs, seems to be all eyes (alert, alarmed, prayerful) and hands (fluttering, clasping, beseeching). Like certain figures drawn by Edward Gorey, he has the carriage of a drooping lily.
There is something Victorian, as well as Gothic, about his presence — and his sentimental embrace of darkness. As was evident in his earlier “East 10th Street: Self Portrait With Empty House,” staged in New York three years ago, Mr. Oliver has made pets of the ghosts of loneliness, fearfulness and loss that most of us do our best to keep at bay.
By the way, projections of Louise Oliver’s sketches and paintings are shown during “Helen & Edgar,” cityscapes and portraits drawn with the shimmering bluntness of an eternally untutored child. Mr. Oliver says he feels that there is “an innocence to mother’s work that is like a form of revelation.” Forms of revelation obviously run in the family.