Some Wheely Good Fun At “Helen On Wheels”
Pigs Do Fly Productions continues its sixth season with Helen On Wheels, a play by Cricket Daniels that first produced in 2014. The company’s unique mission is to show that over 50 can still live their lives in interesting, involved, and exciting ways and showcase performers over 50 in the process.
Helen On Wheels certainly fits the bill, starting with central character Helen, who we first meet as she is attempting to break out of jail by way of blowtorch after a bingo debacle. Played by Beverly Blanchette, this 70-something-year-old woman has lived in rural Crockett her whole life and hasn’t let her age dim her zest for adventure, her irreverent sense of humor, or her passion for Wild Turkey and the NRA.
Other old-timers onstage include Dave Corey, well-cast as Helen’s dashing and refined gentleman caller Elmer, and Carol Sussman as Zona, Helen’s spunky best friend figurative Thelma to her Louise. Rounding out the cast are David A. Hyland as Zona’s son, the inept police officer Seth, and Todd Bruno as Helen’s son, the high-strung lawyer Nelson.
I saw little to criticize in the rustic and realistic set by Ardean Landhuis but found most of the cast adequate rather than outstanding. Blanchette, occasionally overdoing it with gestures and facial expressions, also failed to capture the larger-than-life charisma that made Helen the toast of her town. Her broad portrayal might have played better in a larger theatre.
Meanwhile, the supporting actors occasionally seemed a little flat and stilted, not fully comfortable with their lines or roles. A notable exception was Bruno, who brought plenty of personality to his part.
Yet these imperfections did little to dampen this delightful play’s plentiful laughs. Daniel’s snappy dialogue and zingy one-liners make the most of the characters’ farce-style antics. Particularly memorable scenes include the jam-packed Act One closer and the relatable familial arguments between Nelson and Helen.
On the other hand, the show’s comedy sometimes veered into a shticky or sitcom-ish territory, and its humor occasionally seemed to be at the expense of less sophisticated “country folk.” I wasn’t always sure whether we should be laughing with Helen and Zona or at them.
However, in Act II, the story pulls back on some of its shenanigans and goes a little deeper, shifting its focus to Helen’s reluctance to move past Wyatt’s death, her husband of several decades. Yet even this element still has its idiosyncratic twists — in a unique depiction of grief, Helen believes that Wyatt is still communicating with her by causing her microwave to beep. This storyline adds weight to Helen’s family and relationship struggles, making the play’s optimistic ending feel far more poignant and earned.