Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s new rep of healthcare plays—Mercy Killers and Side Effects, both written and performed by Michael Milligan – tackle the broken nature of America’s healthcare system—supposedly the greatest in the world. Side Effects focuses on the less-often-considered side of the doctor-patient divide—that of the burned-out physician, equally frustrated and thwarted by a broken system as the people for which he cares.
Unlike Mercy Killers, Side Effects is a brand-new work. It’s the result of three years that Milligan spent interviewing doctors around the country regarding their professional lives and the doctor-patient relationship. The play’s program cites some pretty bleak statistics that undoubtedly motivated the creation of the piece, including the fact that suicide rates amongst doctors are more than twice that of the general population.
For this work, Milligan embodies the role of Dr. William MacQueen, a physician who’s come to the office of his childhood friend-cum-lawyer, Paul, in order to seek legal advice and unload his frustrations with his life and career. It’s interesting that for both plays, Milligan’s characters are forced to either be arrested or pay by the hour to have someone truly listen to what they’re going through.
And Dr. MacQueen is going through a lot. His initial reason for visiting is that he’s being sued for a clerical error that allegedly occurred with one of his patients. The secondary reason is that he’s gotten an offer from a hospital to buy his practice—the one his father began and which he’s currently struggling to keep afloat, along with his marriage and family life.
Milligan does an impressive job of conveying a massive amount of fascinating information without it coming off like he’s reading a white paper. He covers a lot of ground in just over an hour—the stress of keeping a business running, the overwhelming amount of work that must be done just to keep his head above water and the opportunities that that creates to make mistakes, and—most effectively—the gulf between MacQueen’s desire to save lives and his love of the “art of medicine” and the bureaucratic nightmare that his days have become.
closes June 3, 2017
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Milligan makes his desperation and exhaustion almost palpable to the audience, laying bare the frustrations and Sisyphean nature of his life that have him contemplating diving head-first out of his fifth-floor office window. And it’s only made harder by the glimpses he gets of the way things could be—he has memories of his father treating patients in exchange for cartons of eggs and, more recently, a visit to France where the prices for medical services are listed on the wall and the doctors still make house calls. Instead, we have a system of our own choosing that values efficiency over empathy and taking the time to get to know patients on an individual level—as Dr. MacQueen quips, “Americans don’t mind a gulag, as long it’s privately run.”
Side Effects shows a different side of the healthcare system that often gets ignored. Whereas television series like Grey’s Anatomy and ER focus on the big, dramatic events that test physicians, Milligan shows us how, in real life, it’s the small, daily struggles and mindless tasks that can wear the noblest of intentions down and create the kind of errors that have real consequences for patients and physicians alike.
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.