A Question of Mercy REVIEW by Don Shirley LA Times Theater Writer

A Question of Mercy
REVIEW by Don Shirley
LA Times Theater Writer

Tales of Life and Death, Based on a True Story.

Pacific Resident Theatre poignantly addresses assisted suicide in David Rabe’s “A Question of Mercy.”

By DON SHIRLEY, Times Theater Writer

Champions of the exclusively theatrical experience often shy away from anything that resembles a docudrama. Theoretically, fact-based stories are better told on television or film, which are more hospitable to the look of physical reality. Why would people pay theater prices to see something they could see on TV?

In a very small theater, however, and with a subject that doesn’t require vast outdoor vistas, the impact of a powerful docudrama can be considerable. With the distances reduced, the nuances on the faces are as visible as they would be in a televised close-up. Yet a stage production can employ theatrical devices that would appear hokey in a more realistic medium. Case in point: David Rabe’s “A Question of Mercy,” at Pacific Resident Theatre. Rabe doesn’t indulge heavily in theatrical devices here, other than a couple of dream sequences. Indeed, the humdrum title is so lacking in lyricism that it sounds as if it could be slapped on several interchangeable TV movies. Rabe’s priority is to tell the story as well as possible, and he succeeds. “A Question of Mercy” is a penetrating and poignant experience, in a pitch-perfect local premiere from director Matt Gottlieb. The skeleton of the story, as it was initially told in a first-person magazine article (with the same title) by physician and writer Richard Selzer: An AIDS patient wants to end his suffering peacefully. His lover contacts a doctor, and the couple ask the doctor to assist in the patient’s suicide. The doctor has his doubts, but he finally agrees. Complications develop.

The complications are gripping. Although the doctor has meticulously engineered a course of action, attempting to anticipate every possible detail, he neglected to think of one obvious problem. Fear of the legal consequences seeps deeply into the planning processes, and plans change without everyone being notified. The fateful events go awry. And then, with the patient in the hospital and no longer able to speak, there is some indication that he may have changed his mind about his original impulse.

Rabe is careful to acknowledge ambivalent feelings. The title may sound as if he has stacked the deck in favor of interpreting assisted suicide as a simple act of mercy, but he makes it clear that it’s not as simple as it looks. No soapbox is in view here.

The central character is the doctor, and it’s remarkable how little we know about him–and how little it matters. We have no idea whether he is married or single, straight or gay. He quit the surgical field after an unsettling incident that triggered a burned-out feeling, but we don’t know how he spends his days now, apart from brief mention of a cooking course he’s taking. He directly addresses the audience on several occasions, taking the opportunity to describe his evolving feelings, but he seldom strays far from the subject at hand.

It’s a formidable challenge for an actor, and Robert Bailey is up to the task. Rumpled and low-key, often speaking and reacting with scientific detachment, he nevertheless manages to convey this man’s turbulent thoughts with the utmost precision.

Anthony, the patient, is more forthcoming with details about his life. He’s a Colombian émigré. His feelings are much closer to the surface. In George Villas’ performance, this dying man becomes remarkably alive. Vestiges of his natural charisma live on in his voice. When he implores the doctor to help, or discusses the word “woozy,” he casts a minor spell.

In Selzer’s original article, the patient was identified as a public health doctor himself, which led to unanswered questions about why he had to call on another doctor, whom he didn’t know, for so much help. Rabe avoided such questions by telling us nothing about Anthony’s work. Likewise, we don’t know much about Thomas, Anthony’s lover, except that Kevin Rahm makes him both tremendously appealing and troubled. The men’s relationship appears absolutely genuine in its strains and its salves.

Valerie Dillman plays a friend of the couple. Her entrance into the planning process bothers the doctor–not without cause, it turns out. Dillman plays this woman, about whom we know hardly a thing, with a slight edge that sharpens some of the exchanges. As a doorman in the men’s apartment building and a former patient of the visiting doctor, Haskell Vaughn Anderson III projects a winning bonhomie.

Pacific Resident Theatre, which usually does very well with older plays, demonstrates an unexpected knack for the currently topical with “A Question of Mercy,” offering yet another confirmation that it’s one of L.A.’s most valuable companies.

Robert Bailey: Dr. Chapman
Kevin Rahm: Thomas
George Villas: Anthony
Valerie Dillman: Susanah
Haskell Vaughn Anderson III: Eddie

Written by David Rabe, based on a journal by Richard Selzer. Directed by Matt Gottlieb. Set by Norman Scott. Costumes by Audrey Eisner. Lighting by Tom McDermott. Sound by Tom Joy. Stage managers Veronika Vorel and Ryan Harris.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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