‘Helen on Wheels’ opens at 2nd Street Theater

Zany comedy by Bend playwright Cricket Daniel

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

If you go

What: “Helen on Wheels”

When: Opens 7:30 tonight with 6:30 p.m. dessert and champagne reception; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through April 12, matinees at 3 p.m. Sunday and April 6.

Where: 2nd Street Theater, 220 N.E. Lafayette Ave., Bend

Cost: $19, $16 students and seniors

Contact: 541-312-9626 or www.2ndstreettheater.com

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, at least according to health expert Mary Poppins.

In “Helen on Wheels,” a comedy making its world premiere tonight at 2nd Street Theater in Bend, heaping spoonfuls of action and zany humor help issues of independence, aging and death go down easier.

“Over-the-top humor is often what you need in order to make a point about things that are too tender to talk about in reality,” said director Susan Benson. “In this case, it’s the fact that (Helen) is 75 years old. She’s losing her own independence. She’s losing people who she loves in her life. She’s crossing life’s new boundaries, and she’s afraid — you know, all those things we’re all facing to greater or lesser degrees.”

It’s the fourth comedy by Bend playwright Cricket Daniel to run at 2nd Street (see “If you go”). The play stars 2nd Street Theater owner Maralyn Thoma, the first production she’s acted in since 2008, according to Daniel.

At a recent rehearsal, Thoma threw herself gamely into the role of Helen Wheeler. Helen is a feisty, fun-loving grandmother, but also a prominent citizen of Crockett, Okla., a small town outside of Tulsa. Her son, Nelson (Fred Giacomini), is an attorney in Tulsa when he isn’t back in Crockett dealing with his trouble-making mom.

Helen would rather drink highballs and shoot birds and raccoons than play canasta at the senior center.

“That place is for old people,” she tells her best friend and partner in high times and crimes, Zona (Gloria Anderson), immediately after gunning down a bird.

No wonder the setting of the first scene is jail. Helen expertly manipulates the town sheriff, who happens to be Zona’s son, Seth (Neil Overfelt), into fetching her a blanket and tea one minute so blowtorch-wielding Zona can liberate Helen from her cell the next.

Entertaining though it may be, Helen’s behavior is cause for concern for son Nelson, who’d like her to move to Tulsa, to be closer to him and her grandchildren.

But Helen’s hometown roots run deep. Her deceased husband, Wyatt Wheeler, was once the town’s mayor, and the county in which Crockett is situated is named Wheeler, so she’s disinclined to go anywhere. Though he died two years prior to the play’s events, Helen’s funny, eccentric behavior points to her ongoing pain.

It takes good friend Zona to point out that you don’t spend more than half your life with someone, watch him take his dying breath and get over it like a case of the flu.

Daniel, whose previous plays include “Couple Dating,” “Love, Laughter & Lucci” and “Gina Galdi and Guest,” believes it’s her best work to date.

Daniel said the play was directly inspired by her relationship with her mother before her death a few years ago.

“I moved her to Bend, and she became extremely needy. And I became extremely frustrated. When (Helen) and her son have some pretty heavy moments — those are all true,” Daniel said.

Benson, who’s directed previous plays by Daniel, said this new work is “a little heavy, which is something you wouldn’t expect. But I think that is the interesting thing about this play. In the most lighthearted and zany way, it touches on the issues of loss, aging, loss of independence.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com