A Question of Mercy by David Rabe – Off Broadway Theater Review
NO QUESTION ABOUT THE QUALITY
by Alexander Harrington
published July 24, 2010
A Question of Mercy
now playing Off Broadway at Atlantic Stage Two
through August 1
PTP/NYC’s production of David Rabe’s A
Question of Mercy, directed by James Petosa, is compelling and harrowing. Adapted from
writer/physician/metaphysician Richard Selzer’s essay about his own experience, the play tells the story of a doctor who is asked to assist in
the suicide of a man suffering from AIDS.
Petosa and/or Rabe seem to have made a change to the play. In a 1991 production and in the published version of the script, the doctor is, like Selzer, a man --
Robert Chapman; here the doctor is Roberta Chapman played by the excellent Paula Langton. Since
the program makes no mention of this shift, it is impossible to know whether it is was made so Langton could play the part or whether Rabe
has made a permanent change to the script.
The extremity of Anthony’s (the dying man) condition initially puts the play squarely on the side of
euthanasia. The only thing that calls into question the rightness of the action is how pained
by the suicide plans Anthony’s partner Thomas is. This is highlighted by the severe and
selfish demands Anthony makes of Thomas – for example he wants Thomas to be present at his death, but forbids him to cry. Aside from Thomas’s feelings, the obstacles to the suicide are, for the most part, practical, not
ethical. Dr. Chapman has qualms, but these are
based on fear, not morality, as she decided early on that Anthony was justified in his desire for death. However, toward the end of the play the possibility is raised that even people suffering excruciatingly
have a will to live. Thus, A Question of Mercy is
not agitprop, but a struggle with a difficult question that offers no easy answers.
As I said earlier, Langton gives an outstanding performance. Alex
Cranmer is very moving as Thomas. Tim Spears' depiction of Anthony’s symptoms is gut-wrenching
for the audience. However, distinctive physical and vocal traits are gifts to
actors. Whether they are portraying the mannerisms of an autistic savant, the accent of a
Bronx nun, or the physicality of the Elephant Man, actors get showered with accolades when playing characters with such
attributes. Not only is Spears given palsy and weak legs and lungs, he also is given an accent
– Anthony is Colombian. The courtliness of Spears’ accent and manner is a little too precious, but this probably results more from the
dialogue Rabe has given him than it does from Spears’ portrayal. As I said, Spears moves the audience. Qualms aside, this is an excellent performance.
Petosa’s minimal production (with set by Christian Galvez, furniture by Eleanor Kahn,
lighting by Hallie Zieselman, and costumes by Emma Ermotti) is elegant. The minimalism did
distract me at one point. The play includes many phone conversations in which the audience
hears and sees both speakers. For these, Petosa does not use prop phones, but isolates the
speakers in lighting specials and has them look out at the audience. When a real phone was used
for a conversation in which only one speaker was heard and seen, I was pulled out of the play for a moment.
A Question of Mercy contains two dream sequences. One is ingeniously staged by Petosa and beautifully performed by Langton and Spears, the other unnecessarily
adds to the length – but this is certainly the playwright’s fault.
Most importantly, Petosa, his design team, and actors have put together a powerful and satisfying
alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Stan Barouh
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