Mercy Killers

nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 23, 2013

It takes almost the length of the piece to figure out exactly how Joe, the quintessentially regular solo character in Michael Milligan’s one-man play Mercy Killers, has ended up in a police-station interview room. Yes, he seems to have punched an EMT, but he was angry and grieving, and the unseen cop who’s listening to Joe’s confession seems to be giving him plenty of space to tell his story, not interrogating him in any urgent or aggressive way.

But the specifics of the device are almost irrelevant; the arc of the piece isn’t really about any crime Joe may have committed, but about how his entirely typical—even archetypical—life went completely off the rails once his wife, Jane, was diagnosed with cancer: from a happy small business owner, striving for his piece of the American Dream with Jane by his side, to a bankrupt man who’s lost one house and is about to lose another, and who’s losing his wife what feels like twice (first to a divorce that would allow her to qualify for Medicaid, and then to the illness itself).

There are times when the piece feels like it’s strayed too far into archetype, making Joe a model of “regular Middle American guy” rather than a messy and complicated human being; when it’s a little too generic, as if a checklist of qualities was compiled to create Joe. It’s not that his biography and story are lacking in details, but that the details seem to add up to a monochrome portrait. In trying to give Joe the universality of an everyman, I feel he’s become a little bit generic. He’s an auto mechanic, and he’s trying to buy partnership in his shop: a real working man and small business owner. He loves apple pie and the Fourth of July. He’s a smart guy, good at his job, but not too smart: he got over-ambitious in buying a house big enough to start a family in, and then tricked by a mortgage broker when trying to downsize. He pays his insurance bills but his wife got dropped due to a clerical error after she was diagnosed with cancer. He listens to Rush Limbaugh, and while he doesn’t agree with everything Limbaugh says (and Jane agrees with almost none of it), he agrees enough to keep listening.

Of course, it’s a heartbreaking story; these are people who had a genuinely loving and happy marriage despite their philosophical differences, who were doing their best to make a good life for themselves before Jane’s cancer diagnosis. (It’s not clear whether she had a job before she got sick, but either way the past few years of her life are mostly spent in managing her disease.) Their needs and dreams and ambitions were simple: a little security, a family to raise, making even more unjust that this should happen to them.

Yet while the piece is unquestionably moving, it also feels a little calculated, like it’s built on a straw argument. Of course this hard-working middle-American shouldn’t lose his home and have to divorce his wife for her to get cancer treatment. But sometimes I felt this piece made Joe too much a perfect example of that point, as if someone who worked less hard or had a rockier relationship or got fired from a job or depended on food stamps would have been more deserving of this terrible fate. This sounds strange to say, but in some ways, Joe might be more human, or more representative, if he was less of a great guy, less self-aware, rougher around the ages. 

At the same time, Milligan is enormously likeable as an actor; you see the genuine joy he took in his relationship with his “hippie” wife, as different as they were. It’s hard to convey a relationship through one person’s view, especially, as here, where you don’t ever really know what drew them together other than a shared affection for farmstands and natural beauty. Yet Joe’s deep and heartfelt love always came through. Still, I sometimes felt like Milligan the actor was anticipating reactions, playing conclusions only Milligan the writer would know.

The ultimate ending did play out differently than I’d been anticipating (the title is a bit of a red herring, as it turns out), but I still wished there’d been a few more unexpected developments or surprises in the character-building.

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