“Helen on Wheels” really is hell on wheels. Helen Wheeler is the feisty main character of the laugh-out-loud comedy by Cricket Daniel. It is being staged now through March 17 by the Santa Clara Players.
Helen, played by Estelle Piper, is 69 and was widowed two years before the comedy opens. She is still grieving the passing of her husband and superstitiously believes that his spirit has taken over the microwave that his handsome photo is perched on. She lives in Crockett, OK, the small town where her husband was mayor for more than 20 years.
Escaping her sorrow with bingo and booze, Helen’s high jinks land her in jail more than once. But not to worry, the sheriff, Seth (Rick Blackman), is the son of her high school friend Zona (Karie Vaughan), who always helps her break out of jail.
Back at home, Helen keeps the sheriff at bay with one of her three shotguns, and by ignoring his threats.
“I’ve already had to revoke your driver’s license. Don’t make me revoke your NRA card,” the Sheriff says to Helen.
Helen’s son, Nelson (Ed Pieczenik), wants to move her to Tulsa, closer to him, but she is adamant about staying in Crockett and, indeed, discovers new reasons to stay put as the story unfolds.
“You can either keep on talking to that microwave or you can get back to living,” Zona tells Helen at one point.
“I don’t laugh in this house anymore,” says Helen. “The quiet is loud.”
“The comedy is a slice of life,” said Marie Ballentine, Assistant Director. “There is loss but also discovery. And mostly, it’s just about friends—about the support of family, friends and community.”
Matt Matthews, the Director, identifies with the comedy because his mother was from Oklahoma.
“I like the way it’s written. The playwright really crafted some very funny stuff. I enjoy it,” said Matthews. “I try to direct so that if I enjoy it, the audience will, too.”
“I’ve been very fortunate to get these excellent actors,” added Matthews.
“Helen on Wheels” debuted in 2014 at the 2nd Street Theater in Bend, Or., where playwright Cricket Daniel, a California native, now lives. When it opened, she was quoted in “Go!” magazine, saying that the comedy was inspired by her relationship with her late mother.
“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,” said Daniel.
“Helen on Wheels” is funny yet poignant. But in the aftermath of the Parkland, FL, school shooting deaths Feb. 14, Helen’s portrayal as a whiskey-drinking, rifle-toting widow is unlucky timing. And joking about Helen killing birds and raccoons and even aiming at an annoying child, hits too close to reality.
“Helen on Wheels is not a political play,” commented Daniel in an email Feb. 26. “It is a heartwarming comedy to which I feel I stayed true to the character of Helen Wheeler.”
Santa Clara Players performances are held in the Hall Pavilion, 1511 Warburton Ave., behind the Triton Museum of Art. For show dates and tickets, visit www.scplayers.org or call (408) 248-7993.