Debate weakens `Mercy'

Review: Olney's drama about the right to die suffers from speechifying about that heart-rending issue.

June 11, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The right to die is an emotionally charged issue loaded with potential drama, as playwright Brian Clark proved two decades ago in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"

Yet David Rabe's "A Question of Mercy," which is receiving its area premiere at Olney Theatre Center, gets so bogged down in speechifying that at times it is more clinical than compelling.

Based on an article by Richard Selzer that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1991, the play concerns a retired physician and an AIDS patient, who hopes the doctor will help him commit suicide.

James Slaughter plays the reluctant doctor as a conscience-stricken, avuncular figure. The patient, a Colombian native named Anthony, is a warm, gentle soul. At one point, Anthony speaks about how charm has always been one of his greatest assets, and even portraying him as a weakened shell of a man, Jose Carrasquillo lets that charm shine through.

Indeed, one of the most heart-rending aspects of Carrasquillo's depiction is how inherently likable he makes Anthony. On the one hand, Carrasquillo's Anthony is such a sympathetic figure, you feel he deserves to have his wishes fulfilled.

On the other hand, it is precisely because Anthony is so likable that you understand why his lover, Thomas, is unwilling to let him go. Christopher Lane's Thomas is a deliberately prickly character. He cares so much for Anthony both emotionally and physically -- administering his medications, cleaning him, urging him to eat, etc. -- that Anthony's determination to die leaves Thomas angry and short-tempered. "I hate the whole thing, it makes me furious," he admits during the doctor's first visit.

There are a couple of other characters as well -- the somewhat comic figure of a doorman (Mitchell Hebert) and Susannah (a rather chilly Helen Hedman), a close friend of Thomas and Anthony's, who is brought into the deliberations despite the doctor's insistence that they keep their plans secret.

Most of the play, however, focuses on the interaction between doctor and patient. Once the doctor agrees to help, there are long passages of detailed instructions about which pills to take, how many and in what manner. Then come the careful preparations for Anthony's last day -- not only what he will do, but also the actions of the doctor, Thomas and Susannah.

Dying isn't easy, the play says over and over again. Nothing about it -- neither the act nor the consequences -- seems to go unexamined. That intense scrutiny of medical as well as moral issues ultimately turns a play that should be deeply moving into something that feels more like a debate.

The chief exception to this dry approach is the rare nightmare scenes, which display some of the gut-wrenching feelings of fear and guilt that are largely restrained in the rest of the play.

Director Jim Petosa uses the same basic set for "A Question of Mercy" as he did for Olney's preceding production of "Equus." Designed by James Kronzer, the set suggests an operating theater -- a concept chosen because of the medical themes in both plays. It's a less effective concept here, but then, this is also a less effective play.

`A Question of Mercy'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 4

Tickets: $15-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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