Julian Wiles has definitely put everything he has into Helium. By his own account in recent interviews, and a speech at the opening night gala, Helium is the most personal of the writer/director's work. It's also his favorite. And feeling is evident in the production too.
Helium is a labor of love. No doubt about it. It's also an entertaining, at times poignant, and well-produced production worthy of high praise. Wiles' work is also one of the best shows of Charleston Stage's season.
The play focuses on the eccentricities of Gramms, played brilliantly by Samille Basler, and the effect her dementia and have on her family. Amber Mann (Alice, her daughter), Luke Whitmire (Ethan, oldest grandson), and Taylor Carnie (Josh, youngest grandson) make a wonderfully convincing family tested by the strains of taking care of a loved family member who can't be left alone. Whitmire particularly deserves high praise for playing a character full of teenage angst and restlessness with an even hand. His shouting match with Mann in Act Two is an emotional highlight of the play.
Samille Basler, of course, is the star of this show, and her performance is a wonder to behold. She is able to play Gramms with incredible truth, hilarious lightheartedness, and touching emotion. She slides in and out of Gramms hallucinations and flashbacks smoother than even the script does at times. Basler lives in the flesh of a beautiful, fraying mind and presents it to us without comment or stylization. She simply exists before us. Quite honestly, it's the performance of the year.
Helium does lose a little lift during a few moments in the play. The flashbacks that feature the hallucinated, former student Johnny (played by resident actor Mikey Nagy) feel strangely out of place in the show. Because the rest of Gramms fantastical journeys are shown in the context of the real world, these moments where she speaks to Johnny alone on stage and across time don't have as strong an impact. This isn't helped by the fact that Nagy plays them flat, never quite matching the level of Basler.
The show is a performance piece, which is to say that its biggest strengths lie in watching the strong acting of its leads. But it is also a smart contemplation on life as it winds down and on our minds as the helium leaks out.