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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Vital Signs Performer and Nurse Offers Probing Look into the S.F. Hospital Scene

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Allison Whittaker - COLIN HUSSEY
  • Colin Hussey
  • Allison Whittaker

Alison Whittaker's fellow nurses are her heroes, and in Vital Signs, her one-woman show at San Francisco's Marsh Theater, she portrays the humor, support, and steadiness they display while encountering just about everything at a major S.F. hospital -- catheters, diaper changes, projectile vomiting, blood, and abusive patients yelling for their meds.

The neurological unit where she works, while fascinating, can be a very sad place, Whittaker said, and she appreciates the comic relief and inspiration she gets from her co-workers. She wanted to show the mix of people she's dealt with at the hospital, where patients include folks traveling from Dubai for treatment, homeless people, and prisoners from San Quentin.

"There's all these different characters," she said. "I mean, you have a transsexual nurses' aide wiping the bottom of a conservative Christian. I thought it was a story that hadn't really been told."

Whittaker's mother also worked as a nurse -- and she was a great storyteller, Whittaker said.

"She was incredibly entertaining. I had five sisters, and we had about 20 animals, so it was this crazy house that was a mess all the time. My mom could make a story about going to the A&P a big adventure."

Whittaker said when she told her friends stories about nursing school, they encouraged her to seek out a larger audience. Performers at the Marsh such as Marga Gomez and Josh Kornbluth inspired her, and she started taking classes on performance and writing with Marsh guru David Ford several years ago. At first, she was writing about two teenage girls -- one corrupting the other. When she started writing about what went on at her job, Ford encouraged her to tell those stories.

Whittaker's characters are composites, she said. One that many audience members respond to is Leticia, a morbidly obese woman eating Reese's peanut butter cups and demanding morphine. Not very sympathetic, until Whittaker, and by extension the audience, find out her story.

Whittaker said when she went into nursing, she had big plans about changing people's lives and getting them to live a healthier lifestyle. And she could get a little miffed if they didn't play along. Now, she sees things differently.

"For a while I thought, am I helping anybody at all?'" she said. "Then I realized I could help them by just loving them rather than judging them. I thought I could get people to make changes, like eating healthier, but it's like life, really. You can't really change people."

Vital Signs plays at 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays through July 22 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St. (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-$35.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Emily Wilson

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