“If you want to change something by Tuesday, theater is no good. Journalism is what does that,” playwright Tom Stoppard once said. “But, if you want to just alter the chemistry of the moral matrix, then theater has a longer half-life.” So, it’s a credit to Taffety Punk Theatre Company that their new rep of healthcare plays—Mercy Killers and Side Effects, both written and performed by Michael Milligan—manages to walk that fine line between timely political discourse and timeless character study with such great finesse.
Both plays tackle the broken nature of America’s healthcare system—supposedly the greatest in the world.
The first of the two plays, Mercy Killers, focuses on the patient’s side of the divide. Milligan plays Joe, an auto shop owner in Appalachian Ohio in 2010 who finds himself spilling his guts to a police officer after punching out an EMT who came to claim the body of his dead wife following her long fight with breast cancer.
While Joe’s wife was what he liked to call a hippie, he himself freely admits to listening to Rush Limbaugh in his auto shop when he’s working. He believes in hard work and personal responsibility and disparages “welfare, trailer trash scum.” But as he is confronted with hurdle after dehumanizing hurdle in the race to get his wife the healthcare she needs, he’s forced to reexamine everything he believes about “the nanny state” and how much agency he really has in this matter.
And the indignities he faces are those that can be inflicted on anyone. The bill for his wife’s first surgery is $14,000 alone. They’re then kicked off their medical insurance plan because the company claims they sent a form about his wife’s employment history that they didn’t return in a timely manner. They’re forced to sell their house—the one with the extra bedrooms meant to be filled with children—and move into a trailer park. One of the most heartbreaking turn of events is that the couple must legally divorce so that his wife can qualify for Medicaid (he makes just over the maximum).
The claustrophobic confines of an interrogation room is the ideal environment for Joe to wrestle with his own ideals and political beliefs as he’s constantly thwarted by a system that’s rigged against him.
closes June 3, 2017
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Milligan plays this conflict with nuance, vacillating between his rage at the system and the people who keep it going and his desire to take responsibility for his situation and understanding that the insurance company employees and mortgage brokers have families of their own to take care of. It’s difficult to listen, however, as he struggles with involuntarily blaming his own wife for ruining their lives rather than the rigged game that makes it impossible to win.
Mercy Killers won the 2013 Fringe First award in Edinburgh, but it sadly remains as relevant today as it was then. As I’ve witnessed many of my fellow progressive friends, drunk on schadenfreude, gleefully share articles in recent months of Trump voters now facing the deportation of loved ones or the loss of their health insurance, I think the two-fold gifts of education and empathy that a piece like this can impart are more vital than ever. It’s fitting that Mercy Killers is being presented in the nation’s capital, where the fight for the future of healthcare is taking place—hopefully audiences on both side of the political divide will use this as an opportunity to remember the real lives hanging very much in the balance.
Mercy Killers by Michael Milligan. Directed by Tom Oppenheim. Performed by Michael Milligan. Set and sound design: Marcus Kyd. Lighting design: Katie McCreary. Light assistant: Daniel Flint. Stage manager: Steven Quartell. Produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company with Poor Box Theater. Reviewed by John Bavoso.