“Holding the Edge”: Helping AIDS Patients in the 80s, at The Marsh, San Francisco

“Holding the Edge”: Helping AIDS Patients in the 80s, at The Marsh, San Francisco

Nurse Elaine Magree: A Night Shift to Remember

by Jeremiah Wall

In her shift as a nurse in late January 1986, Elaine Magree encounters death in the sky and on earth, and ends up not quite “Holding the Edge.” She finally tosses a garbage can through a large glass window, protesting Reagan’s lack of action in the AIDS crisis. The AIDS crisis washed over Oakland in the 80s, and care-givers were overwhelmed.  While working as a hospice nurse in the 80s, Magree develops personal allegiances to her patients, which she recounts in this solo show at The Marsh in San Francisco. She makes us feel like we are there with her—and them.

Magree helps her patients cope with their gradual falling apart and then, with departing this mortal coil. She does her job with grace, and she lets us in on her doubts. Elaine Magree talks to us elegantly, with rapid transitions from poise to helplessness. We see her breaking down and putting herself back together—because she has to be present for her patients. To us, she can express her doubts. We feel privileged and engaged in the human emotions of her AIDS hospice work.

It is fitting that Magree is a nurse, because we are going to need some help getting through the pain that constitutes a large part of the long day in which she sets “Holding the Edge.”  As the song from Mary Poppins says:  “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Nurse Magree tries hard to make her terminally ill patients comfortable: she tries a lot of tricks to help them out.

Offering more than a spoonful,  Magree uses humor to diffuse the pain. Reminding us of the time gap between the 80s and now, she uses her  pager, and  telephone booths  to make calls to her clients. She  names the phone booths: Lauren Bacall is an elegant booth with a leather seat.

On the spare stage,  Magree  works with  empty space.  She hums and dances  to the beep of the phone, a nice touch. We sense that she needs this humorous relief to get through her difficult night shift. Whatever discomfort we feel at watching the deaths unfold, she experiences them even more deeply.

While she is watching patients die, she is keeping an eye on the launch of the Space Shuttle, and is looking forward to Reagan’s “State of The Union” address.  She believes that he will finally address the AIDS epidemic. Her optimism  provides a counterpoint to her serious, realistic side. She has a  childlike enthusiasm for space travel. And she naively believes that Reagan will understand the scourge of AIDS, which is her daily occupation.

When the Space Shuttle explodes in mid-air, Reagan mentions only that “national tragedy,” but not the AIDS tragedy, killing so many more people. Magree’s disappointment leapfrogs her patience. The shuttle explodes while she is tending to a famous drag queen in her final moments. He becomes the  exploding rocket, too.  Although she knows her patients are doomed, the manner of their deaths still surprise her.

Still Nurse Magree holds on to the edge, facing more emotional challenges. She raises her son on her own, trying to stay sober. She enlarges her views from the merely personal to the political, transforming herself from Nurse Magree to Unmasked Elaine. And while her rage spurs her to break through a plate glass window, the garbage can bounces off the glass. Maybe that’s Nurse Elaine reisisting the force of destruction, keeping things whole.

Magree’s considerable acting skills work well with her don’t-give-a-damn earthiness. We never doubt the authenticity of her experience. If she merely told her story at a dinner party, she would not have enough impact: she has to go public with the medical scandals. Magree is compelled to do justice to the Bloated 80s by bringing that dodgy Reagan era to life on stage. She gives us the medical account of the grotesque disasters that Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer cover in “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart.”

By stepping into the bodies of her characters, she  recreates them and herself in that turbulent and chaotic time.  Magree gets us invested in the lives of the patients she depicts, whom we know for a moment before the light goes out.   She lights up the lives of her patients, delivering all the brilliance she can.  And when their lights are extinguished, we feel the loss. Although it’s a lot to expect from a short, solo show, Nurse Magree knows that we have it in us. She is going to make us hurt, but she will be there with us, to alleviate the pain.

We leave the theater with a degree in wisdom: a skillful performer has revealed genuine human beings. She has lovingly rendered a necessary story, keeping the memory of her patients alive. She allows us to appreciate any life we can still carve out, in the midst of bewildering assaults.

We’re lucky that we can face this challenge without the death sentence imposed by AIDS in the past, without the ignorance born of the Reagan era (I guess ignorance is back in vogue, now).  Without the Space Shuttle exploding on TV before our eyes, can we get the message?

Bigger spectacles have happened since, and worse despots have risen. Luckily, we can think of Nurse Magree, who will help us to Persist. Someone like her will give us a hand when we fall apart. She helps us throw a garbage can at the glass wall of indifference.

Go see Elaine Magree holding forth at The Marsh. She has a high “cure” rate on her audiences. She makes things clear and gives us joy and hope.


“Holding the Edge,” written and performed by Elaine Magree, developed with David Ford, directed by Rebecca Fisher, Acting Coach Jill Vice. Playing at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, through Saturday, April 8, 2017. Info: themarsh.org

Solo Show: Elaine Magree

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