Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Vital Signs" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

If this reviewer ever finds himself shut up in the neurological ward, he wants Alison Whittaker to take care of him. A nurse in real life, her one-woman show "Vital Signs," in which she portrays an entire floor of patients as well as her fellow nurses who are in charge of them, is filled with empathy and humor.

It doesn't hurt that Alison Whittaker is a natural performer. After all, she is talking about awful things -- including a great deal about what the nurses call  "The Six P's" (We can only remember pee, poop, pus and pills). The patients are terrified and the nurses underpaid and overworked. But as she takes us from character to character, including the crazy Mr. Lulu, Donnie the quadriplegic, Ruth the large-mouthed nurse, Denzell the swishing orderly and Leticia, a most improbably sympathetic patient, we can't help but laugh more than we think we should. Still, we are never far from the realization that all of us, some day, are likely to end up on a floor just like this one.

We love the way she opens: "I'm a nurse. If I asked you to bend over, drop your trousers and allow me to stick a probe up your anus, you'd be happy to let me." We love the way she closes. In the middle we walk the floor with a veteran nurse and we say to ourselves: "I'm sure glad that's her and not me."

This is a very rare thing to hear in this column, but: the show could have gone on even longer.

Alison Whittaker is still developing "Vital Signs." It's rewarding already. Whittaker reminds us of Ann Randolph in her physical mimicry and this is a very high compliment.

RATINGS:  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Vital Signs" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. David Ford's direction is spot-on. The upstairs room at the Marsh can be an oven, but nobody seemed to mind. We were all too busy laughing.

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for Nurse Ruth's description of the perfect patient. We're not going to tip it off, except to say that one attribute might be "no living relatives."

Alison Whittaker's "Vital Signs"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through July 21 

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