In 2008, on a winter day just after Christmas, Carrie Kartman went for a hike on Mt. Tamalpais with her partner, their 11-year-old twin sons and her mother visiting from upstate New York.
It didn’t start out as an easy day. The boys were digging in, didn’t want to go. But then it went downhill, and down some more.
Carrie Kartman’s solo play — a performance she described as personally difficult but deeply important — tells of the “death cap” wild mushroom poisoning of her sons and mother. The play’s title is I Should Have Listened.
An actor, playwright and educational therapist, Kartman brings her 40-minute performance to The Monkey House in Berkeley on Oct. 15 and 22. It’s a dual bill with a second solo performance by actor and comedian Steve Budd, Seeing Stars, a personal family drama.
I Should Have Listened, The Monkey House, 1638 University Ave., Oct. 15 and 22, 7 p.m.
With a warm mix of seriousness and humor, Kartman will recount intensive care beds, IV drip lines and uncertain doctors, antidotes flown in from Cologne, Germany. Blood test after blood test. Blind trust and self-doubt.
On that December day 15 years ago, while hiking Marin County’s Dipsea trail, one of Kartman’s sons discovered a “beautiful patch” of mushrooms, which the family gathered. Kartman and her partner, Joe Carpenter, went out that night (the couple are now separated), leaving grandma, then 72, with the boys, and a dinner menu of her special mushroom soup. The family lived in Albany.
Then vomiting, diarrhea, multiple trips to emergency rooms, an agonizing contradictory blur of medical advice, and eventually intensive care at UCSF Medical Center. Touch and go. Touch and go.
The twins and their grandmother survived. The boys, now in their 20s and healthy, with no lingering physical effects from the poisoning. Kartman’s mother also fully recuperated, dying four years ago, unrelated to wild foods of any kind. (Disclosure: I knew Kartman years ago and have a son who was friends with her sons.)
“There were two things that interested me in writing it,” said Kartman, who wrote the play over six months in 2016, with some tweaks since. She’s performed it several times over the years, mostly in the Bay Area.
“It was very much not the medical drama,” she said. “It was the family drama that allowed two loving and devoted parents, Joe and myself, to let their kids be poisoned right in front of them.”
Secondly, Kartman said, is “my impulse to raise public awareness” around the highly toxic Amanita phalloides, or death cap mushroom, which sprout in the Bay Area’s open space, loving oak tree habitat and wet conditions.
It’s an impulse that gets more urgent when summer turns to autumn turns to winter, with rains in the air. Death caps, which cause more deadly poisoning globally than any other type of mushroom, are easily mistaken for edible species. There are regional differences in their appearance.
Predictions for another wet California winter spike her drive, she said.
“Amanitas are proliferating right now,” Kartman said, referring to articles she’d read on new research, published in January of this year in the journal bioRxiv, suggesting that California death caps are adapting in ways that powerfully boost their spread.
Kartman wants to warn others not just of the risks of eating wild mushrooms, she said.
But also, of the psychological and social traits and trappings of families and individuals that can affect judgment and decision-making, including on such critical matters as whether to trust grandma’s soup. These realizations developed in her in the years after the event, she said.
A grandma, who in this case, lived on a large chunk of rural land in New York, gardening, watching nature, identifying safe from unsafe mushrooms.
“The very heavy-duty social training I had to not contradict my mother was so strong,” Kartman said, in part reflecting on her mother’s status as a successful academic, a professor. “You don’t contradict an elder, especially a mother.”
“Are you sure you know your California mushrooms?” she’d asked her mother that day. Carpenter, the boys’ father, made a similar ask.
They were reassured.
“We both turned off that very strong parental impulse to protect our children, ” Kartman said.
In addition to performing at The Marsh theaters in Berkeley and San Francisco, and an earlier run at the Monkey House, Kartman was invited to do her piece at a “mushroom camp” in Michigan years ago, an educational gathering for wild fungus newbies and experts held at a family summer camp where she’d attended, and worked, as had her sons.
When asked if performing the show is therapeutic, Kartman replied quickly. “Everyone likes that narrative, but it’s really hard for me. I always ask myself, why am I doing this again?”
Though she loves performing in general, she stresses.
Then, at the end of I Should Have Listened, the reasons emerge as the clapping winds down. “I like what happens with conversations with audiences afterwards,” Kartman said.
People talk of their own experiences touched by her words, she said. “Which is actually what I hope that theater does for people,” she said. “They see, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one.’”
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