Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest isn’t your ordinary community theater, and if there was ever any doubt, its latest offering should resolve it.
“Helium” will start Sept. 19 at the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre.
No, it’s not about the weird sound your voice makes when you inhale helium, although that would be pretty cool, too. Instead, the play takes a sensitive, tragic topic and makes it lighter.
It’s about dementia, which isn’t funny. But it can be.
“I think it’s very much appropriate for the time in which we’re living,” said director and theater co-founder Bob Baird. “And I think it’s interesting to see a comedy about something that is a pretty serious subject, and to see it handled in a way that uses humor to soften some of the painful parts of the story.”
Now, don’t get mad at me for saying dementia can be funny. I’m not making light of the pain it causes, and neither does “Helium.”
Lead actress Gilly Conklin, 64, plays the role of 80-year-old Molly Kingsley, who has dementia.
Conklin’s mother was in a nursing facility for four years, and while she didn’t have dementia, Conklin saw many other patients who did. She said she saw them cope, in part, through humor.
“I (would) carry on conversations with people and they’d go off, and they’d get a kick out of it as well as me,” she said.
There’s a lot of that in “Helium.” The main character’s mind is wandering during the play, and she travels back and forth through her life while her daughter tries to keep her in the here and now.
“Part of the humor of the story comes from her family trying to keep up with who she’s talking to at the moment,” Baird said.
“Helium” is ultimately an upbeat story. In particular, the character of the nurse is able to give in to the draw of dementia and play along with the scattered memories of the main character, rather than constantly trying to draw her back to reality. That’s something that struck Baird.
“This play to me represents the way that I would want myself to behave if I were in this situation,” he said.
Baird chose this play because it’s not what you’d expect to see in community theater.
“A lot of theaters have to focus on well-known plays, musicals and things like that,” he said. “This was something fresh to me.”
In fact, this is the regional debut of “Helium,” and it is being performed with original music made specifically for Forest Moon by Joe O’Keefe, a musician and owner of Wine 101 in Wake Forest.
“Helium” was written in 1990 by Julian Wiles, and the playwright has revisited it twice since then, revising it each time. The revisions were sparked in part by life experience, like watching his grandmother grow old and pass, and seeing his mother-in-law suffer from dementia.
And that’s the thing about “Helium,” and dementia – it’s not the kind of subject you delve into once and then forget. It’s something that will crop up over and over throughout a lifetime as one sees friends, loved ones and acquaintances deal with it.
And then, at the very end, you may even see what it’s like first-hand.
For Baird, “Helium,” is an opportunity not only to entertain but educate.
“I think it helps you better understand what it’s like, not just to suffer from dementia, but to be living in a family with someone who’s experiencing that,” he said.
One in three seniors dies with some form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It will most likely touch us all.
So, in a sense, “Helium,” is a sneak preview of what’s to come. And that isn’t funny.