Theatre review: Mercy Killers

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Edinburgh Fringe Scotsman review: Mercy Killers at Assembly Hall (Venue 35), reviewed by Sue Wilson

Mercy Killers

There’s a marvellous and mysterious kind of alchemy at work in author and actor Michael Milligan’s mesmerising, harrowing indictment of US healthcare. Not only is it theatre distilled to its most basic essentials – one ordinary individual telling his story, as if to an invisible interrogator, his only props a table and chair – but it’s unambiguously specific in its objectives: to attack a system responsible for more than 60 per cent of US personal bankruptcies, within which most of those driven to this last resort had health insurance when their medical problems began.

It’s also patently fuelled by profound outrage, and yet all these elements are so skilfully and meticulously controlled, in both the writing and performance, so thoroughly transmuted in service of storytelling, drama and characterisation, that the effect is gripping first and foremost on a painfully human level, even as Milligan simultaneously delves beneath the foreground issues to the personal and national philosophies underlying the debate Stateside.

With his lumberjack shirt, baseball cap and Southern twang, Joe is your archetypal, all-American regular guy: the self-made part-owner of a car repair business, a Rush Limbaugh fan and staunch believer in the free market. He’s being questioned under arrest following the suspicious death of his wife, who was suffering from terminal cancer.

Technically, it turns out, she was in fact his ex-wife, though they still shared a home, and the mutual depth of their love is movingly apparent from Joe’s descriptions of her, his recollections of their relationship and the grief that continually threatens to overwhelm him. We learn that at an earlier stage of her disease further treatment might have helped, but the debt-ridden couple (having already lost their house) could raise no more funds. Joe’s recession-hit income was deemed still too high for her to receive Medicaid, whereas she would qualify as a divorcee.

Previously, too, as those debts stacked up, Joe had been padding out jobs at work with extra, non-existent faults to earn more – which goes as directly against the grain of his proud morality as does accepting Medicaid in the first place.

It’s perhaps this illumination of the variously grotesque ignominies into which people are forced as a result of illness, the sacrifices demanded even of their deepest principles, when their life or a loved one’s is at stake, that brings home Milligan’s message most potently. Despite flashes of righteous anger, too, among the myriad emotions at work in Milligan’s superbly nuanced portrayal, it’s perhaps most heartbreaking of all that Joe’s adherence to the traditional US credo of self-reliance leads him ultimately to blame himself.

MORE INFO: Mercy Killers is at Assembly Hall

Originally published in The Scotsman

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