The Cure

The Play Obamacare Needs: ‘Mercy Killers’ at the Working Theater

A solo show at the Working Theater in New York called Mercy Killers reminds us that whatever the merits of Obamacare, having a lot of uninsured people is no good.

Lia Chang

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama defended his signature health care plan, the Affordable Care Act, saying it will cuts costs, cover more people, and increase choice. In her response to the address Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican representative from Washington state, voiced what other critics of the act say—that it’s not working and “health care choices should be yours, not the government’s.”

The debate over health care and how to reform it has been extremely heated, bringing up such emotional issues as access to care, bankruptcies over health care costs, the pharmaceutical companies’ role, and insurance companies denying coverage. All of these get addressed in Mercy Killers, a solo show at the Working Theater in New York through Feb. 16. Julliard-trained actor Michael Milligan doesn’t pretend to be neutral—he wrote and performs the story of a man who loses his house, his business, and finally his wife after she gets cancer, ending up with him in the police station telling his story, to show how the lack of access to affordable health care can devastate people’s lives.

Milligan says he was driven to write Mercy Killers (which goes on to Ithaca and Colorado after its run at the Working Theater) by his loved ones’ struggles with health care as well as his own.

“I was passing kidney stones and I did what probably a lot of people do—I went online,” he said. “I diagnosed myself with kidney failure. Then I looked up how much it was to go to the emergency room. It was $8,000, so I stayed home. If it had been kidney failure, maybe I would be dead.”

Mercy Killers tells the story of Joe, a body shop owner who listens to Rush Limbaugh, sympathizes with Tea Party politics, and then finds his beliefs in self reliance shaken when his insurance doesn’t fully cover his wife’s cancer, leading to divorce so she can qualify for Medicare and then to bankruptcy. It has gone all over the country, including Minnesota, Illinois, California and Ohio, as well as to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won the “Fringe First” Award.

The appeal of the play shows how it’s tapping into a universal concern over health care, says Laurie Wen, the executive director of Physicians for a National Plan.

“I work on this every day, and I was sobbing,” Wen said. “That’s why this is so powerful. Every day in the news we’re hearing about healthcare and you can look at charts and data, but this cuts to the heart of things, which is that it’s immoral to have people die when treatment is available and it’s immoral when a wife has to divorce her husband, so she can get care.”

With the implementation of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and controversy over the bumps in the rollout, healthcare reform has been all over the news. In the midst of this, Mercy Killers tackles issues such as medical debt and the role of pharmaceutical companies in a personal way, says Josh Starcher at Heathcare Now—NYC, an organization that advocates single-payer healthcare.

“It’s all wrapped up in a love story, and part of the humanizing factor is it centers around a husband and a wife and the impact a medical crisis has on their lives translates to the impact it has on everybody’s lives,” Starcher said. “It’s something everybody can relate to. With the Affordable Care Act everyone is talking numbers and policy, but this addresses the actual impact on people’s lives.”

That’s why Mark Plesant, artistic director of the Working Theater, wanted to bring Mercy Killers to his theater for a run of four weeks in Manhattan, with a week in the Bronx and another in Queens.

“There’s a rawness to the character, and one of the things that’s so powerful for me is it breaks the barriers down. It’s not an ‘us versus them’ kind of issue,” he said. “We’re debating the Affordable Care Act, but we’re not remembering the bigger picture that the system right now is not working, and it’s a real problem to have a lot of uninsured people. About 60 percent of bankruptcies are health care related. The play says let’s look at the big questions.”

Milligan says audience members always want to come up after the play and tell him their stories.

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That sharing is crucial to moving a discussion on health care forward, says Starcher.

“Whenever we share our stories, we realize we’re not all alone,” he said. “People are having these conversations around the Affordable Care Act and how it’s being implemented and maybe out of that comes discussions about what we do want and organizing to get it.”