One-woman play ‘Holding the Edge’ blends social commentary on AIDS crisis, witty comedy

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It’s Jan. 28, 1986, and terminal AIDS patient Elsie has two fears in his final moments: being left out and that the afterlife nuns won’t have any glitter.

Toggling back and forth between lighthearted comedy and serious social commentary, this conversation shared between Elsie and Nurse Elaine, the main character, sets up the foundation for The Marsh Berkeley’s production of “Holding the Edge.” Set in Oakland at the height of the AIDS crisis and during the aftermath of the Challenger explosion, “Holding the Edge” is a powerful, one-woman play written and performed by Elaine Magree.

At first, the show is light and playful. It begins with hospice nurse Elaine speaking directly to the audience during a busy work day. She laughs with the audience about how she could get food and still tip for less than $5 — it’s the ‘80s. She even offers witty asides about life as a working, lesbian Cub Scouts mom.

But by the death of her third patient, Nurse Elaine’s frustrations become increasingly clear. The AIDS crisis in the ‘80s was so scary for so many people, especially without an appropriate, or really any, response from the U.S. government at the time. President Ronald Reagan postponed his State of the Union Address to publicly mourn the loss of seven astronauts from the Challenger explosion on national television, but he never recognized the many more lives lost to AIDS.

In one scene, while on her way to a café, Nurse Elaine meets a man with a mental illness living on the street. She quickly realizes he’ll die soon from AIDS, judging from his pale complexion and noticeable infections. Afterward, when she considers adding a random bottlecap she sees on the ground to a beaded weaving she makes to honor the lives of her patients that pass away, she stops herself. Why did his living on the street mean that he couldn’t have the most beautiful bead, like her other patients would have gotten? It’s through small moments like these that “Holding the Edge” starts an important dialogue about the relative value society places on lives.

There are times when the play feels a little overreaching, though. Maybe it’s because the target audience is an older crowd that remembers Berkeley in the ‘80s, but some jokes are left slightly unclear. For example, impressions of teenage family members have too many “likes” and “ums” to be realistic. Then there are other references that can easily go over the audience’s head.

But these less-than-funny moments are definitely made up for by Magree’s poise and confidence. She uses audience participation, keeping everyone engaged and laughing alongside her — a nice break from the heavier scenes.

All of this is packed into a fast-paced 75-minute show that is surprisingly easy to follow. Transitions between scenes are made fluid by the bare stage, which allows the main focus to be on Nurse Elaine. Magree deliberately breaks the fourth wall to narrate directly to the audience, but does so to give the necessary context for everyone to understand exactly how the events of that long January day unfolded. The audience is able to live through the humor as Nurse Elaine perceives it and feel the painful intimacy she shares with her patients in their last moments.

But “Holding the Edge” is not just Nurse Elaine’s story. It is a story of an entire community not only affected by AIDS but also determined to choose life in the face of discrimination. It is a story of all the people that, as Magree says, were “imperfectly dedicated to securing social justice and sacred pleasure.” It is a story that makes us question why we treat some lives as though they matter less than others and one that empowers the many voices silenced during the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s. It is a story so beautifully told.

“Holding the Edge’ is running at the Marsh in Berkeley through October 15.

Contact Priyanka Achalu at [email protected].