I don't know why, but twelve hours before I ever saw it, I imagined that I'd end up comparing this show to an impossibly expensive automobile: every nicety of style and adventure thoughtfully planned out in advance; a dash of the extraterrestrial in its atmospherics; complete with powerful, driving themes, along with a (not entirely automotive) combination of hope and desire and spell-binding narrative. In short, everything we've come to expect from Upstream Theatre.
But seeing Helver's Night is more like hopping on a bucking bronco for eighty minutes, only to be thrown into the dirt and carried away, helpless, on a stretcher. I liked it very much.
Karla (Linda Kennedy) and Helver (Christopher Harris) are the only two charactersdwarfed, not only by the high-set windows and large door of the set, but also by events. Helver controls the first half of the evening: a mentally challenged young man, very excited about learning the rules of a new social group which he fails to recognize as a fascist mob. And in that first thirty or forty minutes, we don't understand anything about his relationship to Karla, as she quietly lets him revel in everything he's learned about marching and boot camp and bivouac. The sense of disjointedness, over Helver's misguided soldiering and Karla's mysterious connection to him, is overwhelming. Another key to the constant dread here comes as we watch the much larger Mr. Harris, utterly unaware of the fragility of the smaller, older Ms. Kennedy: seeming to toss her around like a killer whale in his enthusiasm for both his newfound comrades, and an equally newfound purpose for living.
Director (and translator) Philip Boehm keeps the tension frighteningly high throughout, and after quite a bit of huge-versus-tiny struggle, Karla finally takes controlat least until the mob outside fills the night with a sustained roar and an "end of the world" that draws very near. As Karla, Ms. Kennedy is awesomely artistic, unfolding the story of their relationship and making plans for their future, however long that may be. Meanwhile, Mr. Harris is utterly convincing, with Helver excitedly waving a menacing red banner and marching as he's just been taught, until the horrible truth becomes clear. It is a flawless production: the entire world, an entire war, and all of human nature, boiled down like this, and filling the stage and our hearts with tenderness and terror.
Part of the wonder of Ms. Kennedy's performance (and Mr. Villqist's story) is quite beyond the rough and tumble of being thrown around the stage by a huge man with a child's mind. About two-thirds of the way along, Karla has to explain a terrible mistake she made long ago. And all the love and sadness that goes into that explanation also adds a heart-stopping layer of drama to the play's final solution. Will she make the same mistake twice? The process of finding out wipes every other thought from the mind.
Through October 25, 2009 at the Kranzberg Center studio theater, Grand and Olive Blvds., a block south of the Fox Theatre. For information call 314-863-4999 or visit them on-line at www.upstreamtheater.org.
* Denotes member, Actors' Equity Association