The central character in Best Medicine Rep’s (BMR) DC-area premiere of Cricket Daniel’s Helen on Wheels, Helen Wheeler (Liz Weber), is a 74-year old Oklahoma widow full of vim, vigor, and strong drink (“Past our dentures/ Smooth on our lips/Whiskey in a shot/Only wimps take sips”). Ready to wield her shotgun at the smallest provocation, she is the proud possessor of a lifetime NRA membership. The cliché “feisty” doesn’t even begin to capture this lifelong rule-breaker, from the moment she busts out of the local jail with the help of her longtime best friend, Zona (Carol Randolph).
It is the two women who make the show worth seeing. Weber’s performance is riveting, not only in her well-timed comic moments – which are many – but also in more vulnerable and reflective moments as she begins to confront her grief, two years after her husband’s death. Randolph is the perfect sidekick, joining in Helen’s shenanigans but also empathetic and ready to help her friend through emotional rough spots. Together, they create a kind of small-town Golden Girls vibe as they team up to meet life’s challenges.
High on the list of these challenges are their sons. Zona’s son Seth (Terrence Heffernan) is the none-too-bright, malapropism-prone local sheriff, who Helen outmaneuvers time and again. Helen’s son Nelson (Nicholas Allen) is a lawyer from faraway Tulsa (well, 31 miles away) who wants his mom to move closer to him in the big city. Helen and her shotgun are having none of that idea.
The men in Daniel’s script are thinly drawn. Seth doesn’t have much to do beyond being bumbling. Nelson doesn’t have much to do beyond being hyper and exasperated at his demanding mother. Both Heffernan and Allen compound the issues by consistently overacting, both physically and vocally. Heffernan’s thickly laid-on accent and labored approach to his malapropisms, and Allen’s over-the-top gestures and facial reactions, are often distracting. A third male character, Elmer (Bill Hurlbut), who is sweet on Helen, has little to do except to be really nice. Hurlbut does the job nicely.
In the second act, the play’s tone shifts from frenetically comic to insistently heartwarming. Director Kelsey Yudice manages the transition effectively, but Daniel’s desire to create a happy ending – understandable, perhaps, given that Helen is based in part on the playwright’s mother – results in the latter scenes feeling a little too neat.
In BMR’s black box – a repurposed toy store space in a seemingly moribund mall – Allison Mark’s set design creates a realistic picture of a long lived-in house, complete with loud wallpaper, a landline phone, and an eclectic mixture of furniture. The set dressing includes a white microwave, which is almost another character in itself, representing Helen’s deep attachment to the memory of her late husband.
Other parts of the technical production are inconsistent. John Morogiello’s sound design has good moments, like the microwave’s beeps, and frustrating moments, like the phone rings that sound on audience right for a phone located on audience left. The inter-scene country music fits the show’s tone and locale well. Lynn Sharp Spears’ props are effective – a dead duck has a delightful entrance at one point – but the important role of Helen’s shotgun is unfortunately played by what looks to be a BB gun.
Running Time: 90 minutes, including one intermission.
Helen on Wheels plays through October 6, 2019, at Best Medicine Rep, located on the upper level of Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD, between the Macy’s and Sears spaces. The mall’s green entrance is closest to the theater’s location. Purchase tickets online.