Pacific Resident Theatre presents
A Question of Mercy
An Old Hand at Death
David Rabe turns once again to untimely demise —
but this time he found a more personal connection to the issues.
By F. KATHLEEN FOLEY
The specter of imminent death looms large in playwright David Rabe’s work. As a recurring theme in his famous Vietnam dramas–the Obie-winning “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” Tony-winner “Sticks and Bones,” “Streamers” and “The Orphan”–untimely demise and suffering are commonplace. Even in “Hurlyburly,” his gritty take on addiction and Hollywood’s entertainment industry, death pays an unexpected call. Typically, the death depicted in Rabe’s work is shocking and violent, a sudden cataclysm that changes everything in one defining moment. In Rabe’s drama “A Question of Mercy,” now at Pacific Resident Theatre, death comes not in a sneak attack, but in a long and vicious siege with no hope of rescue or relief. Inspired by a 1991 article in the New York Times by Dr. Richard Selzer, the play focuses on the monumental sufferings of a man in the last stages of AIDS, his efforts to commit suicide and the ethical dilemma of the doctor who agrees to assist him. Rabe originally intended “Mercy” as a teleplay for the PBS series “American Playhouse.” When that project stalled in the development stage, Rabe switched his thinking to a stage treatment. “Mercy” was produced off-Broadway in 1997 and has since been widely performed in a number of cities, from London to Seattle. The play’s narrator, Dr. Chapman, is loosely based on Selzer. A retired surgeon turned writer, Selzer had been approached by a terminally ill AIDS patient to officiate at a doctor-assisted suicide. Selzer’s essay about that experience fascinated Rabe at first reading–if only as a creative springboard. “I contacted Selzer to get the rights,” recalls Rabe, speaking by phone from his home in Connecticut. “That was fairly simple. He was very interested in my idea once he’d heard it. But I told him I didn’t want to discuss the play any further with him. I didn’t want to know any more than what was in the article itself. I just wanted to operate with my own response to the piece. “I had this very, very spare outline of events. To me, it was like archeology. I was going from a very small piece of evidence, then trying to flesh it out, to create how things happened, how the characters arrive at this strange end.” In a departure from his earlier works, the characters in “Mercy”–the dying Anthony, the sympathetic Dr. Chapman, Anthony’s lover, Thomas, and Thomas’ best friend, Susanah–are largely devoid of antecedents, except for Chapman, who we know is a doctor. This absence of background detail was a conscious omission on Rabe’s part. “These are not ’rounded characters,’ ” he explains. “I always thought of this as a morality play, a sort of medieval mystery play, where the characters embody a certain trait in a certain event. They are simply a force within the action, which is all that characters within a play are anyway. “I would finish a draft and ask myself certain questions, such as: Should I go into detail about what Susanah does? Should we know more about what Anthony or Thomas did at work? Should we know more about the doctor’s personal life? And my answer was always no. I always felt these characters should be defined by their relationship to the dilemma. If the play is not done right or looked at properly, it can seem a very peculiar exercise.” The particular challenges of the piece were clear to Marilyn Fox, artistic director at Pacific Resident Theatre. “One of the things that’s so tricky in this play is that if it’s not done absolutely correctly, it could wind up like an inferior ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame,’ ” Fox says. “This play is not sentimental; it’s not about people who are all teary-eyed about someone being sick. It’s about flawed people with their own selfish needs, their unwillingness to get involved, their desire to escape a painful situation. “Nothing in a play this good is there arbitrarily,” Fox continues. “Every line is there for a reason. You have to figure out every beat. Rabe writes in this rhythm that isn’t exactly realism. And yet the text is so important, it’s almost like doing a classical play. The characters, I think, are very well-drawn, almost Chekhovian in the way they interact. For the actors, it’s a tricky play, not for sissies.” Measured and meditative, “Mercy” deals with desperate but ordinary people–a seeming departure from the wretched fringe types in some of Rabe’s other works. Yet Rabe maintains that the decadent druggies in “Hurlyburly” are more spiritually akin to the tea-sipping Yuppies in “Mercy” than they would first appear. “There is common ground in a lot of my work,” he says. “There’s the idea of the rational meeting the primal in head-on collision. What moved me when I read Selzer’s piece was these people’s rational attempt to tame death, to take charge of it, to be proportionate in the face of it. There’s sadness and also an almost comedic quality to that effort. The rational thinks that it’s in charge, and the primal doesn’t care what the rational thinks. That’s a theme in a lot of my plays, really.” Rabe encountered the primal firsthand after he was drafted in 1965 and shipped to Vietnam. “Relatively speaking, I had it fairly easy in the war,” he says. “I was in a hospital unit, not on the line. The war, and the experience of the war, certainly had a profound effect on me. It was also liberating in a certain way.” Especially creatively. A few months after returning to the States, he immersed himself in writing. Produced in quick succession by Joe Papp during the 1970s, the Vietnam dramas spanned the spectrum from the fiercely realistic to the absurd, capturing the confusion of the times and establishing Rabe as a ranking American playwright. However, Rabe tends to downplay the direct influence of Vietnam on his writing. “All my plays–including the Vietnam plays–have as much if not more to do with my existence before the war,” he insists. “My upbringing, the person I was growing up to be, my sense of the culture and the country are really what I’m talking about in my plays. When your parents actually die, such things take shape, all those ghosts and that subterranean weight. The mystery of one’s psyche and unconscious and childhood, all the real intimate forces of one’s personality–those are as much a part and parcel of ‘Sticks and Bones’ and ‘Pavlo Hummel’ as the war itself.” In contrast to the emotional isolation of many of his characters, Rabe enjoys an enviably long-term relationship with his wife, actress Jill Clayburgh, whom he met in 1974. “We got married five or six years later,” he says. “Neither of us can ever remember the exact date.” Rabe has three children: 27-year-old Jason, his son from a previous marriage, 18-year-old Lily, and 14-year-old Michael. Deeply involved with his children (on this particular day, he has just returned from taking his youngest to Vermont for a biking competition), Rabe nevertheless appreciates the surreal elements of child-rearing, that frustratingly nonlinear drama that runs on and on until the house abruptly empties. “The parenting project is almost over,” Rabe muses. “When my older son reached his 20s, I didn’t really feel the whole impact of his getting older, because my other kids were still pretty young then. But I feel it now. It all went very fast. Raising kids is a kind of spell, a kind of enchantment. You are enchanted and spellbound, and you don’t even know it. Then, it’s over, they’re grown up, and suddenly you’re on the verge of departing the planet yourself. And it just starts sinking in.” But Rabe, who is 60, dismisses the notion that his own aging process had anything to do with “Mercy’s” view of death. “If my age played into my writing, it wasn’t consciously,” he says. “But then, I did write the play about seven or eight years ago. I’m feeling the weight of age a lot more now, frankly, than I was then. My plays are always ahead of me. I often encounter my themes on a personal level after the play is written, not before. I’ll write a play, and then later I’ll realize, ‘Oh, now I’m going through that same experience.’ Maybe I don’t want to have that experience, but that’s the way it happens.” While “Mercy” lays out the ethical considerations of euthanasia, it scrupulously avoids coming down on either side of the debate. Rabe personally connected with the issues in his play years after he had written it. “When I wrote the play, my dad had just died and my mother was aging,” Rabe says. “My mom died about a year and a half ago. The health professionals who were caring for her were very good, but even with them, I saw how the doctors are under pressure from the insurance companies, how there’s this urgency to empty that bed. “That’s when I started to be opposed to legalization of suicide. My feeling is that you can’t legislate this. My belief has nothing to do with the morality or immorality of the act itself. It’s just my sense of the dangers of legalization, in this world of HMOs and Medicare and hospitals and insurance companies–my fear that, wherever money can be made, people would abuse the process.” Pondering the imponderable in “Mercy,” Rabe draws no easy conclusions. “Death is a conundrum, a mystery,” he says. “I think no one can fully cope with this event. You can adopt some strategy of one sort or another, like the people in ‘Mercy,’ who try to be civil and polite and friendly about it. Then this thing takes over, this thing that can’t be tamed. And when Anthony is finally alone, when this thing takes over, it’s savage.”
* “A Question of Mercy,” Pacific Resident Theatre, 705½ Venice Blvd., Venice, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $20-$22. (310) 822-8392.
F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for daily Calendar.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times