A Question of Mercy
nytheatre.com review by Nicholas Linnehan
July 14, 2010
One can learn about a character by what he/she does, not what they say. This sentiment has been echoed by the numerous teachers that I have had. A Question of Mercy, directed by Jim Petosa, would have an even better production if it took this advice.
A Question of Mercy is a thought-provoking piece about Anthony, a young man dying of AIDS with no hope of improvement. Anthony's request is simple—or is it?: to be euthanized. He enlists the help of Dr. Chapman, a newly retired surgeon who is battling her own inner demons. The play centers around her struggle, and her increasing concern for her patient.
The issues in this play are not light. One is called to question his/her own morals. Is it "right" to let a man suffer from an incurable illness when all he wants to do is die? Do people have a "right" to die? These monumental questions are at the heart of this heart-wrenching story. I was left unsure of the right thing to do, which is a credit to the cast. Similarly, should a doctor, who is supposed to preserve life, assist patients in committing suicide? The play implores its audience to ponder these elusive riddles. There are clearly no black and white answers here, which the production addresses successfully. Yet, I could not help but wish that they went further in their exploration of these moral quandaries.
The mood is set from the beginning. When the audience enters, they do so in complete silence. This helps set the pensive, precarious nature of the piece that we are about to see. However, once the play starts, there is constant underscoring during the numerous lengthy monologues given by Dr. Chapman. While effective at first, the repetition of music deflates the contemplative mood that the play tries to evoke. Perhaps, if the music was used less often and only to highlight certain dramatic moments, a better effect could have been achieved.
The music is trying to heighten Dr. Chapman's inner life, by drawing us in to her. Yet, her turmoil, while discussed at length, is not seen in Paula Langton's performance. At moments, we see glimpses of her distress, but these are too far and few between to carry any real weight. If Dr. Chapman had more action, rather than speech, the audience would feel her plight instead of repeatedly hearing about it. I could not decipher whether it was the script or the actor that caused such a disconnect from what should have been an emotional roller-coaster.
Thankfully Tim Spears, as Anthony, avoids this pitfall and delivers a knock-out performance. He is always in motion, capturing the physical painful reality of Anthony's miserable condition. My eyes were always drawn to him. Spears portrays Anthony with such honesty and conviction that I was constantly and completely engaged in his world. I found his talent exceptional, and his performance riveting! Seeing him play this role with such emotional commitment made seeing this play worthwhile. He is a gift to the stage.
Alex Cranmer, who plays Anthony's lover Thomas, does an adequate job with his role, but doesn't seem to be invested in the deep love that these two men feel for each other, after spending seven years together and forgoing a sexual relationship due to Anthony's illness. Similarly, Martha Newman, as Susannah, a confidante to both men, gets stuck in the philosophical world of her character and does not bring much life to her role. Eddy, played by Matthew Nakitare, offers a fine performance in his role as a doorman. (Yet, I am unsure about the necessity of his character and his function in the play.) Nonetheless, he is a breath of fresh air in this otherwise serious play.
Perhaps, Petosa could have aided his actors by helping them delve into spiritual, emotional, and physical hell that this play requires. If more attention was paid to the emotional and moral conflict that is inherent in the play, the audience would have been sucked into the dilemma that the characters undergo.
I was also confused as to why the actors did not change costumes, especially between the first and second acts. Anthony is the only one who switches garments. The play spans about three weeks, which would make costume changes appropriate. If no one changed costumes, then it would be a convention, but to have one character wear a different costume and no one else follow suit seemed inconsistent and weird.
No doubt A Question of Mercy has a lot going for it. It is chilling and profound. The theatergoer is left thinking and pondering about right versus wrong and good versus evil, which is required by such a deep piece.