Mercy Killers: A Tragic Tale of Social Crimes that Indicts not just our Government, but our Culture

Mercy Killers

Mercy Killers, a one-man, one-act play written and performed by Michael Milligan, made what is sure to be a lasting impression at ARTS/West last Monday, February 25. Boldly and wonderfully acted, the play left many audience members in tears, inspiring both compassion and a sense of the need for change. Milligan, a Broadway actor and Ohio State University alum, is currently on tour performing his act in cooperation with SPAN Ohio in order to advocate health care reform in the United States. His play, first and foremost, is an attempt to speak out on behalf of the gross numbers of individuals who have spiraled into bankruptcy as a result of medical debt. In performance, however, Milligan does much more than this. With an eye toward individualism and the American dream, Mercy Killers ultimately calls for—much more than medical reform—reform of the values that comprise our culture today.

The play opens in contemplative darkness, with an excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” crackling overhead. Suddenly, just as soon as it was presented, the suspicious peace in which this leaves the audience is interrupted when the singer’s crooning is jarringly cut off by the sound of a siren, a crash, and a bright light that reveals our character staring anxiously but intently at the audience. Sitting at a table in a police station, face to face with a cop whom we never see, our protagonist Joe mouths the words “You’re in trouble.” He appears to be either incredibly anxious, or drunk, or both; but what begins to look like a police interview with an average criminal turns our to be much, much more. The police station, rather, becomes a venue for our protagonist’s testimony, and the act seamlessly transforms into the retelling of a tragic love story.

Joe is a staunch libertarian who, unlike many in our day and age, still believes in some notion of the American dream. He listens to Rush Limbaugh, asserts his self-reliance, and aspires only to make a simple, honest living doing what he does best: auto mechanics. Though he has no sizable wealth—he and his wife took their honeymoon in the mountains of Virginia, after all—he is confident in his skills and hopes to make enough to raise a family some day. Despite all this, his convictions about honesty and self-reliance are irrevocably shaken when his wife Jane is diagnosed with breast cancer only a few years into their marriage.

This crisis touches off the couple’s financial decline, as surgery and chemotherapy and even mere consultations leave them with medical bills piling up. After selling their home—as if circumstances weren’t already bad enough—Joe and his wife are driven to further desperation by medical malpractice and mortgage fraud. And the thing about desperation, Joe remarks, is that it makes you “bend your own rules.” Despite his professed belief in honesty and virtue, he is made to begin taking advantage of customers at his auto shop in an attempt to gather enough money to keep the bank at bay. The insurance company cuts the couple off; and as they stare down the throats of the financial overseers of the nation it becomes unclear which is the more dangerous disease, Jane’s cancer, or the dehumanizing and self-interested nature of the United States health care system. As the story steers toward its tragic but inevitable conclusion, one can hardly help but weep alongside Joe for the injustices he—and by extension the innumerable victims of our dog-eat-dog society—faces at every turn.

Of the many solutions Joe and Jane imagine to their plight, suicide is the most heart-rending. The term “mercy killer,” referring to one who commits euthanasia, implies that death can be more humane than certain degrees and kinds of suffering. According to Milligan, however, the meaning behind Mercy Killers is intentionally deeper than that. If “mercy” is another word for compassion—and action taken to reify that compassion in light of alleviating human struggles—then a “mercy killer” can in fact be a person, institution, or entire system that ignores and destroys the potential for this compassion among people. In this all the constituent institutions of our health care system—the hospitals, insurance agents, pharmaceutical companies, etc.—as well as the politicians and lawmakers that perpetuate it, are implicated.

While this reality communicates something highly political—that is, the need for health care reform—Mercy Killers is equally about something much more cultural and individual. Milligan claims that “Actually, Joe doesn’t really care about politics, as I think a lot of Americans don’t. It’s just kind of an identity game. You sort of lean this way or that because of the people you tend to hang around,” and it’s true: while someone like Joe might pride themselves with the label “libertarian,” Joe’s rugged individualism is much more a personal philosophy than a political ideal.

But as this philosophy stems in large part from the greater American culture surrounding him, part of the play’s message is that this philosophy is in many ways no longer adequate for our society. The kind of libertarian individualism that Joe advocates—its small-town notions of self-reliance, independent gain, and privileging of local community over big government—we see is ultimately largely responsible for Joe’s circumstances. On one hand, he is taken advantage of by many, including those working in the hospitals, pharmacies, and courts, etcetera, whose desires are for independent gain; and on the other hand we see that his assumption of his own self-sufficiency is misguided and inadequate toward alleviating his struggles.

Milligan compares his story to the classic story of Oedipus, in which the titular character discovers that it is actually himself that is responsible for the plague in Thebes. Perhaps the most striking of Mercy Killers’ implications is that Joe, because of his own cultural predispositions, has actually contributed to the suffering of people like himself. It is the same attitudes (though admittedly brought about by need rather than want) causing him to take advantage of his customers that cause medical officials to take advantage of him and his wife; and we see the effects of this attitudes in the impersonal nature with which Joe is treated in his struggle, his alienation from his community, and his deteriorating relationship with Jane. In the end, Joe’s peace of mind, just like that touted by the Guthrie tune at the play’s open, is crudely interrupted.

Mercy Killers is thus a call for both health care reform and cultural reform. In the most immediate sense we must change our health care system in order to remove its dehumanizing aspects and prevent it from privileging wealth over people; SPAN Ohio advocates the benefits of the single-payer system, in which the government is responsible for health care costs, to these ends. In a broader sense, however, the play calls for us to examine and redefine our individual and cultural values. As the playwright puts it, “the ‘individualism’ meme is overhyped and romanticized and…historically inaccurate.” Rugged cowboy individualism, though often portrayed as the backbone of the American dream, did not actually inspire and will not sustain the nation. Rather, we need to return to a more nuanced view of the community as a social and political body, a venue that can mediate the needs and responsibilities of the public and private sectors—the government, and the individual. In order to do so, we must first replace a philosophy of pure individualism–which has been outmoded or, as some would have it, was never relevant in the first place–with a communitarian one which, while still validating the individual, can still serve the mass’s common needs. With this view, Mercy Killers is not only about reclaiming our health care, but about reclaiming our humanity from a brutal and shortsighted system. Milligan quotes an age-old Moravian motto as a potential foundation for addressing these concerns: “In that which is essential, Unity. In that which is not essential, Liberty. In all things, Love.”

Mercy Killers is a must-see for those affected by a health care system in need of reform, for those whose strength and self-reliance has not brought them the success they were promised, and for everyone else as well. Milligan will be performing at the Van Fleet in Columbus, Ohio from now through March 9; and for those unable to attend a performance the play will be filmed and posted online for free viewing shortly after. More information can be found at http://www.mercykillerstheplay.com.

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Florida Writer’s Vision Comes to ARTS/West in “Shunned”

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If one were to have wandered into ARTS/West last Sunday, February 17, he or she would have stumbled upon a stage brightly lit but bare, containing naught but eight chairs and a white table lingering before a bleak backdrop. But this isn’t the scene of a board meeting or a weekly powwow with the local philosophy club (yes, even despite the host of brimming coffee mugs)—this is a play reading, the second of the 2013 Hodge Podge series to be precise.

Hodge Podge is a program of readings that takes place in the season following the annual Humble Play festival. Since the Humble Play committee must limit October’s festival to the presentation of only the three most outstanding plays from a swath of entries, the Hodge Podge series gives community members the chance to hear and discuss other notable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut.

In this latest installment of the Hodge Podge program, the topic of discussion was Sarasota, Florida resident Larry Parr’s Shunned, a rustic drama depicting the steady splintering of an Amish family living in the Indiana countryside. Marlo Tinkham, actress, playwright and managing director of the Ohio Valley Summer Theater, headed a group of local actors for the reading. Though its brusque, hard title carries a sense of discord, the play begins innocently enough: our narrator evokes a quaint pastoral scene, characterized by its unassuming beauty and peaceful self-sufficiency and populated by none but the two Yoder children. Our protagonist, Levi Yoder, and his sister Mary, exchange stories of youthful disobedience—Levi has viewed a theater performance, however unwittingly, and Mary has taken the family horse Old Jake out for a nighttime ride. While to many secular folk these actions may seem easily written off on the willfulness of youth, one must only wait for the weather to change to see the extent of the implications they carry. Aaron Yoder—a pious father who compares a wife to a horse and urges Levi to marry a girl named Becky because it will double the extent of his farmland—and Catherine Yoder—a woman who has married into the Amish community and has subsequently been forced to give up her passion for painting—both struggle to negotiate between the needs to nurture their children and to maintain fidelity to their professed lifestyle. Ultimately, as the play reveals, these two desires cannot always be reconciled.

Thus, in a dramatic sense the play is a tragedy. In a larger sense, however, it can be seen as a meditation on the moral injunctions and filial expectations held within the Amish community. As it progresses, Shunned explores Amish critiques of what is referred to as “English” society and its perceived decadence, religious notions of sin and its centuries-deep associations with (particularly female) sexuality, and the question of what it means to believe in God and to follow the “plain path.” While his father persistently urges him to “shun the outside world,” Levi feels a growing ambivalence about the Amish rejection of theater and the performing arts. He further befriends a clever, kind, and openly gay man named Mark Cummings and wonders how his pious peers can consider such a person an abomination. Aaron, his well-meaning Papa and stubborn superego, emphasizes the depravity of the “painted” women in the English theater, and punishes Mary’s parody of these women despite its inherent playfulness. As personal and family conflicts come to a head in the violent antics of Gary Smith, a shunned Amish man who changed his name and his faith following a drug-addled rumspringa, Levi is forced to choose between growing up to assume his father’s paternal duties, and seeking out a new place in the secular world.

Parr’s script is bold for its capacity to pose such complex questions in a short span of time. Yet while disputes about religious dogmas and their social effects can often become tense and personal, Shunned makes its query in a way that dignifies both sides of its conflict and thus forces audience members to consider it for themselves. This, of course, is one of the text’s greatest strengths: as ARTS/West’s own Janice Evans put it, “it asked big questions and didn’t pretend to answer them.” Rather, the play puts audience members in the shoes of its Amish characters, prodding them in the process to examine their own and others prejudices from a new (some may contend “old”) standpoint. From this stance, it’s no mistake that Gary, who has openly rejected his Amish values, calls Mark a “faggot from Shipshewana.” Just the opposite, this act effectively highlights the fact that Amish and secular communities alike maintain and even share many destructive prejudices—prejudices that one may do well to examine more closely.

According to Mary Biechler, a member of both the Brick Monkey Theater Ensemble and the Humble Play committee, it was the play’s introspective nature and profound emotional impact that made it a worthy candidate for the Humble Play festival. However, like all works of creativity, it has its imperfections—faults that keen observers began to articulate during the talkback after the reading. While Biechler and audience members lauded Shunned for its engaging use of language, they lamented its need for greater emphasis on questioning and personal struggle, citing the protagonist’s apparent ease of decision-making as evidence of a conflict that has not been fully developed.

The talkback is indeed helpful in encouraging audience members to articulate their response to a performance, but it can be especially useful to a playwright looking to revise a work. Biechler claims that many writers whose works are read for the Hodge Podge series ultimately edit their plays based on comments made by the cast and audience. Yet whether or not Larry Parr decides that the opinions of a few Athens residents are relevant to his creative vision, this remains certain: programs like Hodge Podge prove to be a valuable means to creating support for budding artists throughout the country, and provide a context in which community members can interpret and create meaningful experience from their works.

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Young Pianists and Dancers Share the Limelight at Front & Center

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“Front & Center,” a monthly performance event by and for kids, is nothing new to ARTS/West. First staged in 1997, the program has had its home at the arts center since 2003; and as our blogspot (www.artswest.blogspot.com) has only existed since 2006, that makes it older than recorded history!

All knee slapping aside, though, the Front & Center event that took place on Saturday February 9 was a fun and fresh exhibition of the creative energies and inspiring discipline of our region’s youth today. For those who don’t know, the event is typically divided into two sections: roughly a half hour of scheduled performance, followed by a half hour of open stage time for students in the audience. For the first portion this time around, piano instructor and Front & Center host Patricia Lachman worked alongside Chelsea Goettge, composition teacher at Factory Street Studio, to help create nine collaborations between student pianists and young Factory Street dancers. The former deftly recited pieces of all styles and ranges—from Smetana to Joplin and onward to more contemporary compositions—while the latter displayed their own choreographed and improvised dance routines.

Those with experience in dance will be impressed to learn that not only were these routines arranged in just three weeks, but that they also never failed to display the students’ understanding of communication through movement, in both its most subtle and most expressive forms. Ellie Andrews, faculty at Factory Street and proud instructor of many of the featured dancers, admits that encouraging students to develop this understanding is one of her main focuses while teaching. “We ask our students to watch each other’s movement, and to talk about it in terms of rhythm, and quality, etc., rather than just narrative,” she stated. The subsequent ability to be both creative and articulate is evident throughout the students’ choreography: from the lilting, wavelike motions set to the piece “Sky Blue Boat” to the snappy and exaggerated choreography to “Maple Leaf Rag” (along with an appropriate nod to the Charleston), they repeatedly found ways to recreate and rearticulate the moods set by the music.

Of course, these themes were consistently amplified by able cooperation and communication between musicians and dancers; and this is what gave this Front & Center event a special difference with regard to past performances. While previously the event has staged sets by many shades of regional musicians—such as the Burhans and the Local Girls—last Saturday it featured a performance that was wholly interdisciplinary, as it placed an equal focus on both music and dance. According to Lachman–whose broad intention for the event is to provide her students with opportunities to learn from experienced musicians and perform in a casual setting—the collaborative Front & Center is important because it gives students of piano, “which is usually a solitary instrument, the chance to begin thinking as a member of an ensemble.” The challenge is that the ensemble is made up not only of musicians or of dancers, but both; and that these two different kinds of artists must learn to combine their distinct modes of communication to express a single idea.

The performance recalls a past Front & Center event during which workshop leader Dan Dennis invited audience members to the stage to join him in group eurhythmics. Both events not only provided entertainment to those present, but also became illustrations of the airtight codependence between music and dance–a notion that Lachman refers to as the “organic connection” between rhythm and movement.

The event closed with five solo performances on an open stage, maintaining the interdisciplinary theme with performances by both dancers and musicians.

Lachman believes that the Athens community contains a wealth of musical talent and is optimistic about the future of Front & Center. She also aspires to steer some of the future performances again toward the realm of interdisciplinary experience. Front & Center takes place at ARTS/West from noon to 1:00 pm on the second Saturday of every month. It is free and open to all ages and all young musicians are invited to perform during the open stage.