The Final Act
A program note gives plenty of notice that A Question of Mercy examines difficult issues, and the first scene certainly sets a somber, thoughtful tone. However, playwright David Rabe's look at AIDS and assisted suicide doesn't hit home until the character of Anthony appears on stage for the first time. Dressed in a bathrobe that looks as if it's about to slip off his stooped shoulders, the young man drapes his gaunt frame over a sofa and, in a rasping voice that cuts straight to the heart, tells a visiting physician that he wants to kill himself "while I still have the strength to do it." And for the remainder of the Theatre Group's well-acted production, the audience barely makes a sound -- except for the occasional burst of gallows laughter.
Its powerful grip notwithstanding, the 95-minute play is not without problems. Fantasy scenes that border on the surreal merely detract from its emotional power instead of augmenting it -- especially since the background music (a recurring piano rhapsody on a Puccini theme) sounds like it belongs in an art-house horror movie instead of a pensive drama about euthanasia. And Rabe sometimes delivers crucial information in clumsy, backtracking ways, which means that the story gets stuck in the mire of melodrama just when it seems poised for tragic flight. But despite a diminished capacity for cathartic feeling, the 95-minute play proves thought-provoking, and director Nicholas Sugar and a fine ensemble of actors manage to deal directly with the issues without muddying them in layers of put-on angst.
The strong acting and direction are exemplified in the many conversations between Anthony's trio of caregivers (for want of a better term) that seethe with palpable tension: No matter how much the three appear to want to put Anthony's needs first, they can't seem to form a bond of common trust. Anthony's lover, Thomas, says he'll leave it to Dr. Roberta Chapman to do what's necessary, but becomes resentful and suspicious when asked to leave the apartment so that Roberta and Anthony can "rehearse" various pill-taking strategies. Thomas and Anthony's friend, Susannah, enters the picture as someone who offers to be a source of quiet strength but winds up being more controlling than supportive. And Roberta constantly wavers between giving measures of assurance and, just as quickly, withdrawing them. All of these conflicts -- along with Anthony's steadfast refusal to die without the benefit of narcotics (understandably, he doesn't want to put himself through the ordeal of starving himself to death) -- underscore Rabe's premise that assisted suicide isn't a clear-cut issue. The life force is too enduring, our individual wills are too strong, and the mystery of the afterlife remains too murky for the so-called ultimate choice to have that kind of power. As a result, we're left to sort out complex issues on our own -- just as, Rabe seems to say, every individual must when contemplating whether life is worth living.
Deborah Persoff gives a nicely understated performance as Roberta, the blinking eye at the center of the proverbial storm. Although the good doctor is annoyingly ambivalent, Persoff handles her most critical decision with an honesty that makes her character seem less a medical mouthpiece than a human being faced with a real and complicated crisis. As Thomas, Richard Cook sympathetically reveals a man struggling to keep his fears at bay but, more often than not, internalizing them to heartbreaking effect. You almost want to tell him to let loose with his feelings -- until you realize that Thomas desperately needs to find a dignified way out of a situation fraught with ugliness and pain. Trina O'Neill walks a fine line as Susannah, admirably rising to the fore when necessary and, especially during a brief monologue, striking a beautifully contemplative tone. And Marc Burg endows the difficult role of Anthony with abundant humanity: No matter what the situation, he always seems to embrace cold facts and prickly sentiment with equal generosity of spirit. Combined with Sugar's astute touches throughout (including a marvelous episode of transformation near the end of the play), the company does justice to a script that, at the oddest times, seems strangely undeserving.
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