‘Holding the Edge’ a touching look at living and dying

In “Holding the Edge,” her one-woman show at The Marsh in San Francisco, Elaine Magree tells a story of one particularly memorable day decades ago in the life of a hospice nurse in the East Bay. She’s riveting.

It was a day when her experience of death was political as well as personal.

It was Jan. 28, 1986. It was the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded, and for Elaine, a lesbian activist, the day President Ronald Reagan, who canceled his State of the Union address, proved his lack of regard for people suffering from AIDS.

She was among the “same 100 lesbians who did everything together” – including, she says, “taking care of friends – some of them who didn’t want us in their bars and restaurants.”

But “Holding the Edge” isn’t harsh, bitter or overly angry.

Illustrating the invaluable contributions of hospice workers, Magree is smart, caring and kind.

She’s also charming and funny, as she answers her pager, calls her answering service from a pay phone (she knows all of their locations, and has one she calls Lauren Bacall), and uses her four-color nurse pen to jot down notes on a pad about her work day.

Wearing a stethoscope and belt with medical supplies, she visits L.C. Smith, dying of AIDS (she portrays him) and his self-described “fairy friend Ember,” who’s dressed like Christa McAuliffe as the shuttle launch broadcast begins on TV. Magree portrays Ember, too.

While not entirely convincing, Magree’s characterizations in the 75-minute show are fine enough.

Yet she’s best as herself, as she tells the audience the difference between plain Elaine and nurse Elaine, how nurse Elaine knows that “crying doesn’t get it done.”

She knows “how to open up a channel” between herself and her patients, and she explains that she tries not to say “I’m sorry” because that moves the focus from the patient to her.

In perhaps the most moving scene, nurse Elaine calmly answers L.C.’s question, “What’s it like to die?” as the TV screen shows the shuttle in flames.

By the end of the day — which involved two patient deaths and an encounter with an inebriated, agitated street person with AIDS — Magree is at a demonstration, following a crowd down Market Street (after Reagan’s speech was scratched) and participating in a die-in.

With the spirit of humanity that permeates “Holding the Edge,” Elaine even gets her 21st-century audience to join those 1986 chants in the Castro: “They see it in the news, your gloves don’t match your shoes.”

Holding the Edge
Where: Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes April 8
Tickets: $25 to $100
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org

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