Is mercy killing humane? Should euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide be legal? These questions are at the forefront of David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy (Directed by Jim Petosa) now playing at the Atlantic Stage 2 Theatre.
Thomas (Alex Cranmer) and Anthony (Tim Spears) have been together for years, but now they are struggling with Anthony’s grueling battle with AIDS. Exhausted from treatments that don’t work and medicines that have more side effects than help, Anthony decides to take his own life as opposed to prolonging his slow painful death. Together with their friend Susanah (Martha Newman), the couple approaches a retired physician, Dr. Roberta Chapman (Paula Langton), who had recently stopped practicing medicine after having an anxiety attack during a routine surgery. They ask for her medical help with their controversial endeavor.
Appalled at first, Dr. Chapman starts having second thoughts when she realizes the degree of pain and agony Anthony is in. Yet suicide is far from simple: you take a dosage too small – you just sleep it off. You gobble up too many pills – you throw up. And if your weakened intestinal walls can’t absorb enough barbiturates, you simply don’t die.
Slowly but surely, Dr. Chapman finds herself absorbed into Anthony’s ultimate undertaking, meticulously organized like an important business affair. She agrees to consult him on the amount of sedative he has to take, then how to take them “properly” until she is pushed to say “yes” to injecting him with morphine – but only if necessary at the final stage of his project. She even ends up playing a shrink to tearful Thomas, who can’t decide whether he wants to hold Anthony’s hand during his final moments or run far away and stick his head in the sand.
As the lethal day approaches, Dr. Chapman’s life shifts from comfortable routine to screaming nightmares – she is haunted by the same thoughts as everyone else involved: will she be viewed as a murderer or an angel of mercy? And will the law ever understand the difference should its enforcement agents investigate Anthony’s demise? “The doorman knows me!” a panicked Dr. Chapman realizes two nights before the arranged apocalypse, “But I’ve promised Anthony – what can I do?” Legalities are hard on Thomas too: he is the sole heir of Anthony’s estate, so will he be considered an accomplice?
Non-traditional and moral-uprooting, the play challenges our society’s established norms of death, suicide and euthanasia – unexpectedly with a few milligrams of humor thrown into the bitter mix – a compliment to the playwright David Rabe who manages the intricate balance of dark and witty. With Anthony’s heartbreaking act of a terminally ill patient, A Question of Mercy makes us to reevaluate what we consider merciful. And as we follow him and the troubled trio of reluctant murderers-to-be through trials and tribulations to an unexpected culmination, the story ends with a surprising twist – just as we think life and death can shock us no more.
Perhaps the modern society will never be able to come to terms with the subject of euthanasia. Perhaps every human has to solve the question of mercy for himself. But what about the moral dilemmas faced by those who chose to be angels of mercy? Maybe that’s why Al Pacino played the part of Dr. Kevorkian in the recent HBO docudrama “You Don’t Know Jack.” I don’t know if he found the answers, but A Question of Mercy sure stirred up enough questions in its audience.
In his “Note from the Director”, Jim Petosa says that the team hoped to “share this one journey […] in the hope of stimulating conversation or individual musing.” I’d say, they succeeded.
A QUESTION OF MERCYBy David Rabe Directed by Jim Petosa July 6 to August 1, 2010 The Atlantic Stage 2 330 West 16th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues) Tickets are $25 ($15 for students/seniors) Reserve yours at: by clicking here or call 212-279-4200