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Author: Jeremiah Wall

“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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“Uncanny Valley” Exposes Android Peril at Pear Theatre, Mountain View

“Uncanny Valley” Exposes Android Peril at Pear Theatre, Mountain View

Acting Human in the Valley

by Jeremiah Wall

We have all heard by now that automation will replace many more of today’s jobs. This startling fact is announced as if the matter were entirely settled, with no room for debate. Increasingly, our talk turns to robots, and Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley,” on stage now at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View, shows us what happens when humans interact with lifelike robots. In the Valley, engineers refer to that uncomfortable feeling with a “close to human” android as the “uncanny valley.”

I’m not so sure Gibbons delivers on the promise of the title with a clear picture of the uncanny valley experienced by Claire (an engaging Mary Price Moore), who, along with her husband, is a leading researcher in the robotics field. The play is set in her office, which is both clinical and personal, like Claire herself. Moore ably captures the clinical Claire, helped by the office’s large wooden shelves with two photos and some favorite books.

Claire’s office is sparse, considering she spends so much of her life there. The action begins with Claire talking to half of a man, upright on a desk, whom she appears to be instructing. Her student is the robot Julian (a clever Evan Kokkila Schumacher), which mechanically swivels its head to see the surroundings.

Claire is perfunctory, and Julian the robot makes a point of being awkward and mechanical in his voice. Claire begins by sounding like a kindergarten teacher, visibly pleased when Julian picks up new expressions, more human ways of talking.  At this point, their interaction is charming and domestic. Director Caroline Clark has done an artful job  keeping our attention on the pair–the only two actors in “Uncanny Valley.”

Between scenes, the aptly named Sara Sparks has created a pleasant lighting effect of colored light panels, inducing the feel of the future, for a play set a few decades ahead.  Claire uses a  “transparent” screen as her laptop, and an invisible phone, with what appears to be a microphone on her wrist.  We can easily understand this office in the 2030s, even with an advanced humanoid as a testament to the future.  The simple set ties us to Claire’s past, when she started her career in the teens.

When Julian gets his legs, Schumacher bounds around the stage taking in all the angles once denied him. We get a sense of what we gain by being able to move around in our space.  The play is also a meditation on acting itself. We want to believe in Julian’s authenticity, because we believe that we are authentic, or aspire to be. How easily we place our faith in surrogates, hoping that some goodness in humanity will guide their actions. Automation? No problem, so long as we get to call the shots.

Schumacher’s early portrayal of the robot rings true and is endearing in its naivete. Moore’s Claire retains the control, enjoying her power, and Julian’s rapid advancement. Later, Claire is overshadowed by Julian, her creation.

As soon as Claire downloads a benefactor billionaire’s personality into Julian, everything changes. Claire reveals to Julian that he is the replica of the dying billionaire, whose entire identity now rules the eternally young Julian. The new Julian can run the tycoon’s companies, after the billionaire’s imminent death.

Schumacher convinces us of the arrogance of the billionaire, who would buy his way into eternity. He paid a quarter of a billion dollars for his makeover project, literally putting money where his mouth was. Schumacher dominates the stage, channeling his billionaire personality. His arrogance may remind you of other billionaires you may know, but Director Caroline Clark preserves some of his charm, here, too.

Claire cannot quite confront the transformed, bossy android. She does get to push the Billionaire Julian over into the “uncanny valley” and tell him that he is just a robot!  You have to laugh a bit at the naivete of someone who thinks that the robot will have her ethics. After all, who has been paying for all this research all these years?

As Claire, Moore embodies subtle ambivalence, when Claire explains how she has sunk all her faith into machines, and lost touch with human feelings in the process. To get really angry at Julian would take Claire to a place she does not know. After all, Claire has spent her life on robots.

Moore is challenged by the subtleties of Claire’s character, and she rises to the challenge. It’s frustrating that the character that grows in this play is Julian, who goes from table, to lab, to limousine and airplane. Julian the robot gets to run things, while Claire has to go home and tend to her ailing husband, who used to be her boss. Well, we are better than that: We care for each other, we’re not cold and robotic, are we?

Our minds yearn for movement, and this production will get your mental and emotional gears going. We might ask, “What makes us human and complex beings who cannot yet be created in labs?”  You don’t need to be a billionaire to be alive, to be yourself. And if there’s some fear of mortality hovering around all of us, that too is what it means to live. Look into the future and its perils at “Uncanny Valley” at the Pear Theatre, asap.

“Uncanny Valley” by Thomas Gibbons, directed by Caroline Clark, at the Pear Theatre, Mountain View, California, through Sunday, February 12, 2017. Info: thepear.org

Cast: Mary Price Moore as Claire and Evan Kokkila Schumacher as Julian.

 

 

Jeremiah Wall

Jeremiah Wall

Jeremiah Wall  was born in Michigan in the mid-sixties, where LBJ launched his great society. He moved to Quebec  in the wake of the Quiet Revolution, when Quebec turned francophone in earnest. Since the late eighties, Wall has written songs, poetry, journalism, and even produced and directed a couple of plays. You can hear his most recent album at soundcloud.com/jeremiah-wall.