Fort Worth — Few issues spark passions as gut-level as our ongoing debate about the American healthcare system. In his one-man play Mercy Killers at Amphibian Stage Productions, actor and playwright Michael Milligan gives the facts and figures an achingly human face, playing a small-town auto mechanic who’s a regular Joe both by name and character—until his wife is diagnosed with cancer.
It’s a performance this Juilliard-trained actor (recently seen on Broadway in August: Osage County) has given around 200 times across the country and abroad since 2012, and to all kinds of audiences: in church halls and doctors’ offices and student unions, and even in a hearing room of the Minnesota state capitol building. The play, directed (then and now) by Tom Oppenheim, won the 2013 Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival. (Read our interview with Milligan here.)
In little more than an hour onstage, Milligan punches hot buttons all along the political spectrum. His character listens to Limbaugh and fumes about the “nanny state,” but as medical bills drive the couple to bankruptcy Joe wonders how well his creed of “personal responsibility” will hold up. “I will fix a million cars…” he says, but nothing he can do will make a dent in their debt or solve the problem. It’s a systems failure too big for one man. In the richest country in the world, Joe feels like he’s “trying to beat back cancer with a clove of garlic.”
It isn’t what Joe expected from his hard-working life. He’s “one of the good guys,” right?
Milligan enters to a wail of police sirens and flashing lights as he begins to tell “what I done” to an unseen police officer. He’s very quiet, yet there’s a sense of visceral emotion from the start. Milligan’s groping, slightly improvisational style suits the situation: Joe is living this out right in front of us, reaching for answers in a world where everyone has a different “somebody” to blame for the mess.
Joe’s no political analyst: his grasp of the issues is sketchy, his facts and opinions all over the map. He’s running on emotion: fear that he won’t be able to do right by his wife, pain at the thought of losing her—and most shameful to him, resentment that she got sick and ruined their lives. He tells himself “it’s not Jane’s fault the couch is on the lawn.” And yet.
It’s a long time before Joe gets to the facts of what happened. But by then, we’re thinking less about the issues, and more about the love story of Joe and Jane, who honeymoon in West Virginia and share plenty of memories—though their politics couldn’t be more at odds. Everything—Joe’s storytelling and the just-past events of the plot—comes together in a moment of crisis, and we’re left, like him, to pick up the pieces and go on.
Mercy Killers is a play that cries out for an audience talkback—it’s almost an unfinished work without one. To that end, Amphibian encourages audience members to talk about the play in the lobby, and (in the spirit of Tibetan prayers flags) to write down relevant memories, stories, or prayers that will fill the space over the run of the play. “The meaning of the play lies with you,” says the company’s material.
It will be interesting in a few years to see if/how our perception of the play may change as the Affordable Care Act begins to take hold and make a difference for more Americans. But right now, it stands as painful witness to one story and one moment in the history of it all—a history we hope, someday, to be seeing in the rear-view mirror.