Mercy Killers at Pillsbury House Theatre

Michael Milligan as Joe in Mercy Killers. Photo: 2014 copyright Michal Daniel

Michael Milligan as Joe in Mercy Killers. Photo: 2014 copyright Michal Daniel

The best theater kicks down walls, pulls off the gloves and starts swinging. Mercy Killers, written and performed by Michael Milligan and produced by Pillsbury House Theatre, is that kind of play – a piece that rages against America’s broken systems – banking and lending, for one, but that’s just part of a larger syndrome. The real sickness in this story is in health care, creating victims of good people who do the right thing.

The play, it should be noted, predates the Affordable Care Act, which has at least addressed some of the issues raised in this play. But more to the point, it is about Joe, a middle class Everyman, a hard-working, blue collar guy who loves the 4th of July and listens to Rush Limbaugh on the sly to avoid political arguments with his “frickin’ hippie” wife. An independent sort, he doesn’t like people depending on the government, and he means to take care of his own. He couldn’t have seen the monster looming when his wife is diagnosed with breast cancer.

The system that should save them instead dismantles their lives, their hopes and dreams, piece by piece until nothing at all is left. Because this is presented as an intensely personal story, it deftly avoids the facelessness rant on a National Issue it might have been, and pulls us in to the bureaucratic web of Catch 22’s, cracks to fall through and slippery policies meant to enrich stakeholders at the expense of those these entities claim to serve.

As theater-goers, we may prefer a brave protagonist who succeeds against impossible odds. But life is not like that. More often, an ordinary person struggles against impossible odds that he (or she) simply can’t overcome, no matter how right the cause, or passionate the struggle. This is the crux of Milligan’s argument, and the tragedy of what his character’s predicament represents.

Nevertheless, Joe admonishes his interrogator, “Don’t feel sorry for me; don’t you do that!” At every turn, Joe finds another way to grab something that’s left for the two of them: innocent things, such as a week of taking long walks near their honeymoon spot in West Virginia; questionable things, such as getting his customers to pay for unnecessary car repairs is another. “It’s amazing how easy it is to lie,” he says, “when the life of someone you love is on the line.”

Milligan wears the burden of his actions throughout, like the layers of jackets he never removes. He battles being overcome with frustration, anger and grief at every revelation. This is clear enough, but Milligan’s sputtering and stammering, pacing, then sitting and curling up into himself felt a little too much like a practiced device after a while. I just couldn’t believe that at some point, he wouldn’t look his (presumed) interrogator in the face and relate the details he understood to be all important. “It’s my life. The details are important. It’s all I got, man,” he says. I was distracted by the relentless restlessness, but still very much drawn into the story.

The production is directed by Tom Oppenheim and runs through May 4. If you’ve had any issues with America’s health care system (and who hasn’t?) you’ll find this a scorching look at its fatal flaws. Recommended.

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