Michael Milligan’s masterful storytelling cuts to the heart of the mythology of male entitlement. The genius of this work is Milligan’s gripping engagement with emotion — anger, grief, incredulity, tenderness, exhaustion and despair. Milligan shows us two men brought to their knees by health crisis, looking at the pieces of lives come undone like broken glass shards scattered in a baffling array of disillusion.
Greenhouse Theater Center Hosts The American Mercy Tour – An American Indictment
Michael Milligan’s Mercy Killers and Side Effects are stories, side by side, of two men — one in the throes of profound grief following loss of a spouse, and another who is face to face with a make-it-or-break-it crisis in his medical career. Both stories are an indictment of the American healthcare system. Milligan shows us despair brought on by systemic dysfunction, bringing men to life stripped bare of the illusions of security and omnipotence.
In Mercy Killers, Joe’s hard-working Appalachian ethics compel him to stubborn adherence to self-reliance. We hear his ethic of “good things come to those who work hard” echo in each effort he puts forth to save his beloved wife from breast cancer. His most heartfelt moments come as he describes his wife’s optimistic life view in a marriage that’s likely a lovely mismatch and in their unending quest for a cancer cure. Joe loves the way her hands feel in his — the way their fingers talk to one another in gentle caress. This marriage survives even the disparaging red tape of a health care system failing them.
Joe takes us along for an uninterrupted vacation from treatment during his wife’s hard won remission. They hold hands on a rock ledge and plunge into water, splashing, laughing and loving. Joe stands under a waterfall cleansing him full force of the humiliation he’s endured in hiding the desperation of his failing auto-mechanic shop. There is no pleasure in seeing the other shoe about to drop. It is a roller coaster for the heart, not unlike the cancer his wife endures.
Moral Distress — A Diagnosis?
In Side Effects, William enters center stage as the harried doctor, cradling a cell phone between his ear and his shoulder, his trembling hands grasping a pen to jot a note. We can hear the endless canned music while he waits for a health insurance representative to approve a medication to save the life of a young patient. He’s in his attorney’s office and the old boy network camaraderie between them from youth to Ivy League can’t hide the fray of William’s over the top stress.
William’s father is central to this story. An “old school, private-practice doctor” now in assisted living, William measures himself continuously by his father’s ethic that can no longer function in an age of corporate-controlled healthcare. William is determined to stay the course, keep the order like the papers he struggles to wrangle. His file folders barely contain the disarray of his life — patients falling between systemic cracks, a frayed and failing marriage, and teenage children accustomed to upper middle class entitlement. The chaos of papers splayed on the floor are a precious metaphor for the way we see William coming undone while his attorney watches from the safety of a desk between them.
A Narrative and a Real-Time Meltdown
Milligan’s Joe is a character easy to love through his story. His love for his wife is palpable. His choices no longer feel like choices. They become reflexive compulsions to survive; to help his wife survive.
William does a slow strip-tease, easing into the naked humiliation of his sense of complete loss of his personal ethics.
Milligan does not walk us off into the deep end of despair. His characters have reached a nadir of life that will propel them forward into an unknown future. It is a look at the crises that spin life off into a new direction. Both stories put questions front and center — do we continue to support a dysfunctional healthcare system to maintain the mythology of a free market that is self-regulating? More importantly, what is the nature of healing for human beings? Milligan takes us on a journey in this immersive theatrical experience to help us engage these questions outside the comfort zone of immunity.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this appears in Theatre in Chicago.
September 9-October 8, 2017
Thursday-Saturday @ 8PM
Sunday matinees @ 3:00PM
About the Author:
Stephen B. Starr is Principal of Stephen B. Starr Design, Inc., a design and communication consultancy in Evanston, IL. Stephen is a former president of the Chicago Creative Coalition, organizer for the Chicago Weekly Sitting Meditation Group and founder and organizer of the Chicago Web Professionals. Stephen is nurtured creatively by the fine art of story-telling — especially in the theater. As a college journalism major, he has since followed the siren’s call of poetry and short story writing in his free time. He is interested in the wisdom of indigenous spiritual traditions and seeks inspiration in natural settings by gardening, camping, hiking and biking.