Part way through "Helen's Necklace," now on stage in the Shaw Festival's Studio Theatre, the audience learns that the title's lost piece of jewelry, described as a string of pearls, is instead made of plastic and has little commercial value.
Right about then, it's becoming clear that the play isn't quite up to original expectations, either, and you wind up passing the rest of the hour thinking of ways it could be better.
"Helen's Necklace" spends a day with a rather flaky woman who has lost her necklace while visiting a Middle Eastern city -- Beirut, perhaps? -- for a conference, and who then ventures out into its war-ravaged streets to pester the populace into helping her find it.
One imagines that Canadian playwright Carole Frechette, who wrote in French, intended to draw Helen as a naive but earnest woman searching for metaphoric enlightenment. But in translation, Helen comes off as nervous and silly.
The production stars Tara Rosling as self-centered, self-seeking Helen and Sanjay Talwar as Nabil the taxi driver, as well as other characters Helen meets on her quest -- a contractor, a woman who has lost her child and a man who has lost his home and his future.
Talwar is more adept with his multipart role, possibly because the people he plays have real problems -- huge problems, compared with Helen's small loss. That is Frechette's point, of course, hammered home with more repetition than vengeance.
The play has been described as poetic, something Rosling picks up on in her performance but takes a few notes too far. Helen converses with others but also gives voice to her thoughts and narrates the action ("I put my fingers in the bullet holes ," etc.). Too often, her inner monologue takes on a musical, sing-song quality -- too ethereal for what she is experiencing, too practiced to sound heartfelt.
Also off-putting: Our Helen, in her lightly crinkled Banana Republic linens, accosts strangers in the street with rapid-fire English, about whether they saw her necklace, which she describes in hyper-literary detail, oblivious to not just the people's pain but also, it seems, to their humanity. Watching, you wish she would just slow it down a little, for everyone's sake.
The Studio Theatre's configuration for this show also could have benefited from more intimacy; the wide, dark stage sometimes swallows up the actors. But the production has its strong points: The sound, designed by John Millard, captures the energy of a rebuilding city, healing up its ancient wounds and carrying the action along. And, frankly, some credit goes to the Shaw programmers who were willing to venture into such messy territory.
Eventually, Helen does pick up the refrain of those she encounters, repeating and embracing the mantra that "We cannot go on living like this. We CANNOT GO ON living like this."
But, like those people she has met, we know that Helen is not the one who really matters here, nor her necklace -- no matter what it represents.
2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Aug. 31
WHERE: Shaw Festival Studio Theatre, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
INFO: www.shawfest.com, (800) 511-7429