Charleston Stage has been back in the historic Dock Street Theatre for a year now, so it’s only fitting that the current season features a revival of a play by founder and artistic director Julian Wiles. Helium, which opens March 11 for a two-week run at the Dock Street, is Wiles’ darling from the ground up, and it is admittedly his most personal play.
Growing Up, a memoir written by Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker, inspired the original script for Helium. The book talks about Baker’s mother, who suffered dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s. Wiles wrote Helium in 1989, and it was produced for Charleston Stage in 1990. The play would later be shaped by personal experiences, as Wiles would observe dementia firsthand in both his grandmother and mother-in-law. These would inspire his revisions of the play, which saw a second production in 1997, and audiences next week will be treated to the third full production of the play.
According to Wiles, Helium has sat in limbo in recent years. He considered reviving it previously, but the temporary venues of recent years, while great for musicals, would have done a disservice to this intimate dramatic comedy. A smaller house like the Dock Street better serves the play, which explores the dementia of a former chemistry teacher and its effect on her family.
“How do we illustrate dementia?” This question was one of the driving forces behind the production design and the writing of the script, and Wiles, who designed the set, has created a fanciful world for the audience to behold. Refrigerators, fish, and food all hover above the stage. The play presents both the flights of fancy of Molly Kingsley (played by veteran actress Samille Basler) and the trials of her daughter (former Charleston Stage resident actress Amber Mann) and grandchildren (played by Taylor Carnie and Luke Whitmire) in keeping her grounded in the world. Both worlds exist simultaneously on stage for the audience to contemplate.
Wiles knows firsthand the difficulties of caring for someone whose mind can wander freely through time and space. The play hopes to change the perception of those who look at the condition in a negative, depressed light. “Two-year-olds don’t have a cognitive mind, but we look at it like, ‘Isn’t it great, this wonderful human being?’ The pain comes from trying to get these people back to what they once were,” Wiles says. “You have to meet them where they are.”
Helium is personal for Wiles, and it’s obvious that he’s proud of his creation. No reason he shouldn’t be. The show has been produced successfully twice before and has a production slated for next year in Montana. But right here in Charleston is where the show was born, and where it’ll hopefully make great waves with the community. Charleston Stage might be back in the Dock Street, but for Julian Wiles, this truly feels like coming home.