1980s, AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Bay Area theatre, black box theatre, Challenger disaster, Challenger Space Shuttle, Elaine Magree, HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus, independent theatre, indie theatre, LGBTQ, NASA National Aeronautic Space Administration, one-woman show, San Francisco theatre, Silence = Death, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, solo show, The Marsh, theatre, Theatre review
“I came here today with the hope that this administration would do everything possible, make every resource available—there is no reason this disease cannot be conquered. We do not need in[-]fighting, this is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.”
– Roger Gail Lyon, reading a statement before Congress in 1983 regarding the growing AIDS crisis
Going to see a show at The Marsh, be it the SF or Berkeley branch, is always a roll of the dice. For every Brian Copeland creating Not a Genuine Black Man there are one or two pretentious exercises in bad stand-up that just make solo shows look bad. Sure, you could say that about almost anything, but solo shows aren’t exactly the most revered form of theatre (they’re considered “too easy”). For The Marsh to not only make that format the stock and trade of its two branches shows a genuine dedication to the idea that a single storyteller can do more than a wide ensemble.
When it goes wrong, you get that show linked to in the last paragraph. When it goes right, you get shows like Holding the Edge.
From the press release: “This new solo show takes audiences to January 28, 1986 to join Elaine, a hospice nurse and Cub Scout mom. She finds herself in the chaotic socio-political center of the AIDS epidemic on the day of the Challenger explosion, confronting the relative value of lives. What does an irreverent and outraged lesbian, who also happens to be in the midst of early sobriety, do? Determined to keep holding the edge, Elaine starts a riot.”
Having been born in 1981, I remember the Reagan era as clearly as I remember last week. Walking into the theatre to be greeted by the sounds of Whitney Houston’s “You give Good Love” put me in a pleasant memory of the time when radio play was a much more surprising experience. A running joke of Elaine Magree’s show is that she purposefully draws the 2017 audience’s attention to the fact that three decades have passed since the setting of her story. I’m not kidding: she’ll frequently break away from the story to directly address the audience with “I had to find the nearest payphone – because it’s the ‘80s!” As I took down notes for this review, I was glad that I stuck to the pen ‘n paper practice that I’d picked up in the pre-smartphone era.
Yes, 31 years have passed. Just as I’m no longer the precocious kid who loved MJ, nor is Magree the nurse knee-deep in dying patients at the height of the AIDS crisis. Her duty is to see her charges through their final moments, so the element of death is nothing new to her. But for an out lesbian single mom in The Castro to deal with an abundance of patients afflicted with what-was-once-known-as “Gay Cancer,” these cases hit closer to home.
The centerpiece of Magree’s play has her treating a dying member of SF’s very own Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We meet the patient’s partner, close friends, and family. Most importantly, we meet someone whose knowledge of their own impending mortality resonates long afterward. The urge to get Reagan to acknowledge the devastation of AIDS is a driving force for the characters (the story takes place soon after the death of actor Rock Hudson and during the Challenger disaster). A dying Sister might not have been an important life to “The Gipper,” but it was a life nonetheless.
If there’s one strike against this production, it’s that Magree is a much better writer than she is an actor. She isn’t bad by any means – she makes it easy to identify each individual personality – she just doesn’t always slip into each on as easily as another, and some characterizations can be a bit too broad.
Still, Holding the Edge serves as a fine time capsule of a time when the defining disease of the late-20th century was dismissed as punishment for hedonism; a time when fewer technological options meant that a greater number of people reacted to the same events; a time when an ultra-conservative American leader disregarded the pleas of his own citizens because it didn’t fit with the narrative he was trying to create. I’d like to say things have changed, but you watch the show and tell me it doesn’t seem timely.
Holding the Edge is running until 8 April at The Marsh – San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit The Marsh’s official website here.