‘Vital Signs’ is funny nursing narrative

| June 26, 2012
Alison Whittaker begins her one-woman show provocatively.
  • Alison Whittaker begins her one-woman show provocatively.

Alison Whittaker begins her one-woman show provocatively, telling folks in the audience how they would acquiesce, maybe even with a smile, if she stuck her hand up their private parts.

That’s the funny and true opening of “Vital Signs: The Pulse of an American Nurse,” onstage at the Marsh in The City.

Whittaker hilariously goes into graphic detail about “the Ps — pee, poop, puke, pus” — dominating daily life in the neurological unit of a major San Francisco hospital.

In addition to the bodily fluids, though, are amusing, real-life anecdotes about the diverse swath of humanity, both patients and co-workers, that colors her lively world.

On opening night, some of her colleagues in attendance clearly recognized the no-nonsense stories in the show, which Whittaker has honed in a series of workshops and acclaimed performances at various festivals.

Directed by David Ford, who specializes in working with actors and nonprofessionals to bring their personal stories to the stage, Whittaker portrays more than a dozen characters in the 75-minute show.

All seem authentic, though some stand out more than others. They include: Arlene, the head nurse with a spreadsheet who urges the staff to work according to guidelines served up in the form of “B.S.” acronyms;  nurses’ aides Denzel, a cross dresser, and Samir, a 30-year vet; Shari, the unit secretary with a Hello Kitty tattoo; and charge nurse Lucy, with a mellifluous Southern accent.

Then there are the patients and their families: Don, a quadriplegic, and his mom Helen, who tries to force-feed him, and Mr. Tong, a Chinese man with a stroke whose wife tells the tale of how they met: He hit her with his Mercedes.

Perhaps the most endearing character is Leticia, a 300-pound, verbally abusive black woman who stuffs herself with Reese’s peanut butter cups and demands morphine, but also isn’t afraid to ask for a hug.

In “Vital Signs,” Whittaker refreshingly doesn’t offer specific life lessons, yet in an appealing conclusion she comes to terms with her own expectations. Having entered nursing thinking she could get people to live healthier lives, she reveals how she has changed, and how she now accepts her patients for exactly who they are.

REVIEW
Vital Signs
Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St. (at 22nd Street), S.F.
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; closes July 21
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (415) 282-3055; http://www.themarsh.org/

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