Not quite two years ago, I wrote these words in an early Aisle Say review: "Like it or not, the cry goes up, even if it is only furtively muttered, or held as a private, almost-but-not-quite-shameful thought: Oh, God, not another AIDS play. It's a cry that knows no class distinction, nor one of sexual orientation. It's merely an expression of intellectual and emotional exhaustion. With this plague decimating so many thousands upon thousands of people, plays about its impact have proliferated to match the urgency...And, just when think you can't take it any more, blessedly along comes "Lonely Planet" by Steven Dietz, which turns one's perception of what an AIDS play is on its ear.
The "Lonely Planet" review is still online (check the New York index under "Gone But Not to Be Forgotten"). I repeat the above words, though, because I had virtually the same reaction to the latest by David Rabe at the New York Theatre Workshop, this one called "A Question of Mercy".
What makes this one unique is the perspective. It's written from the point of view of a doctor--straight, uninfected and for reasons that remain enigmatic, retired at early middle age. His name is Robert Chapman (Zach Grenier) and one day, without warning, he gets a phone call from a fellow he knew once only peripherally, Thomas (Stephen Spinella). It's about Thomas' lover, Anthony (Juan Carlos Hernandez) suffering the ravages of full-blown AIDS. Anthony wants to die. To kill himself. And wants Dr. Chapman to teach him how.
The play is about the resultant moral, legal and ethical quagmire in which Chapman finds himself; no side of the issue is clean-cut or without complication, and one way or another, there is pain to go around...
Though it isn't really at all the same, in structure, subject or tone, "A Question of Mercy" will faintly suggest "Equus" to some...another play narrated by a conflicted healer, looking to the audience for validation, absolution for the choice he has made. The differences, though, are enormous. To borrow, and slightly misrepresent, a genre distinction, "Equus" is something of an "open mystery" in that its hero, Dr. Dysart, is looking to reconstruct a past, to locate links in a chain of psychosis, and find the reason for mental aberration. "A Question of Mercy" however, is an "open" mystery: everyone's motives are clear, what's intended to be done is likewise apparent. But how it should be done, and what the consequences will be, to body, freedom and spirit, are the constant, raging and mutable questions. (A fourth character, a close friend of the lovers, played by Veanne Cox, enters the matrix late and further complicates the projected permutations.) Plus, in "Equus" the patient is the enigma. In "A Question of Mercy"...it's the doctor.
Unsparingly candid, yet tastefully and sparingly directed by Douglas Hughes, "A Question of Mercy" is vivid, touching and unexpected. Within its deceptively narrow framework, it is tightly plotted, and offers a few gratifying--and one genuinely shocking--reversals along the way.
The ensemble is just the right combination of the right players, most of them familiar to New York audiences (though Mr. Hernandez will come as news), none of them stars (yet), which adds to the verisimilitude of being in on a collusion between intimates. Mr. Grenier's reluctant doctor is especially fascinating, as he tries to balance mercy with equal doses of courage and cowardice.
One other thing that distinguishes this AIDS play from others. It's set in 1990. Before the advent of the "cocktail" that has so changed the prognosis, and created, for the first time, such tangible hope.
Nice that an AIDS play like "A Question of Mercy" might qualify as a period piece. Would that they were, someday, all...
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