This is my favorite play of all the plays I have written. I originally wrote Helium in 1990, after reading a memoir by New York Times Humor columnist Russell Baker called Growing Up. Mr. Baker opened his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by observing that his 80-year-old mother’s mind “could wander free through space and time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place a half-century earlier . . . she moved across time . . . with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.” While Mr. Baker certainly saw the sadness of his mother’s affliction, he also saw that there was a freedom there as well. From that thought, my play Helium was born.
Over the next few years I was able to see aging and dementia first hand. My delightful grandmother, having reached the age of 100, passed away still with the twinkle in her eye and her good humor mostly intact. I watched as my mother and her sister, her primary caregivers, found their way through my grandmother’s last and somewhat difficult years.
A few years later, my wonderful mother-in-law (yes, some are wonderful) became lost (on most days) in the fog of dementia. It was a challenging time for our family, especially my wife Jenny, who became her primary caregiver. Our kids were little and they marveled at Granny’s mind and her flights of fancy. Sometimes we wanted to cry, but often we just had to laugh at the things she would tell us. And, like Russell Baker’s mother, she spent much of her time traveling, for like many patients with dementia, much of her long-term memory remained intact.
After Granny passed away and having seen dementia and aging first hand, I decided to revisit Helium and the play underwent a major revision in 1997 and was produced the next year at the Dock Street. It struck a chord with many people who would say to me, “let me tell you about my aunt, my mother, my uncle, my cousin” and they would relate their trials, but also the joys they found as caregivers. They would share with me the flights of fancy that their own loved ones had taken.
Taking my notes from that production in 1998, I recently made additional revisions to Helium
and it is this version that you will see at today’s performance.
The world has become much more aware of Alzheimer’s and dementia since 1990, but much is still unknown. Patients and their caregivers must still struggle to find their own way. And each way is different, as no one has the answers. In Helium, I simply wanted to share one family’s journey, its joys and its sorrows, and with them to marvel and to celebrate the human spirit taking flight.