Many of us know someone who has experienced a health crisis and the financial devastation it can bring. Now one such story is playing out on stage in Fort Worth. KERA’s Shelley Kenneavy visits Amphibian Stage for Mercy Killers. The play follows one couple’s journey through the healthcare system and explores how far a person might go to ease a loved one’s suffering.
The lobby at Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth is decorated with scraps of fabric, meant to represent traditional Tibetan prayer flags. On several tables are markers, more scrap material and questions. Questions like, “What is mercy?” and “Do you think the healthcare system in America is broken?” and “Have you ever experienced sacrificial love?” Looks like this is not going to be an ordinary night at the theater.
The one-man play is called Mercy Killers. It was written by and stars Michael Milligan. He plays a guy named Joe who tells the story of his wife and her breast cancer. Soon after the diagnosis, the couple finds themselves drowning in medical bills and their belongings repossessed.
Milligan is a Julliard-trained actor who has appeared on Broadway and on stages around the world. He was inspired to write Mercy Killers while he was doing advocacy work for a healthcare organization in New York whose focus is making healthcare affordable and accessible for everyone. Milligan’s job was to stand on street corners asking people to sign petitions.
“People always think that actors are brave about doing strange things in public,” he explains, “and I am really horrible at that when it’s myself, not a character. So as I was standing out there I was like, it would be easier – maybe I’ll just write a play and then after the play ask everybody to sign the petition.”
In the play, Joe has a friend, Bob. Joe calls him a “hard core tea party dude.” Joe tells Bob that he and his wife are trying to get government help for the medical bills. But Bob says that when bad things happen the people in your own community are supposed to come together to support you. And Bob has organized a bake sale for Joe and his wife, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But Joe reports that the bake sale raised just $163. And Joe owes half a million in medical bills.
Mercy Killers is realistic and raw. The surprising turn the story takes leaves you wondering how much suffering you could watch a loved one endure. Audiences react audibly during the show – gasping at times and giggling nervously.
Hilary Weinstein of Fort Worth said it had quite an impact on her. She says, “I think it’s an incredibly powerful American story. It’s something that so many families experience and we hear so much about it in the construct of the whole public policy debate. And this makes it very real because it makes it very personal.”
Milligan says the ancient Greeks believed a play was designed to cure social illness by getting issues out in the open. By sharing these issues in a public forum, the community can then come together and support each other. And he hopes that Mercy Killers can be cathartic for people who have gone through healthcare crises. For people who may be feeling isolated in dealing with medical issues, this public display of one particular crisis may help them heal.
Milligan says, “I just want people to remember in the midst of the high rhetoric and passionate, ideological posturing that what we’re talking about is human beings. And I hope that’s what the piece sparks in people.”