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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

"Mercy Killers' is on stage at ETSU

Dubbed a
Dubbed a "deeply affecting love story," "Mercy Killers" is an emotional journey of a man who fights for his wife's life using every resource, personal and otherwise, he can muster.

February 13, 2017

As the Affordable Care Act is being reassessed by a new Congress and administration, Michael Milligan is bringing his unblinking and very personal look at health care to the stage at East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee.

Milligan's one-man show "Mercy Killers" is in the spotlight Tuesday, Feb. 21, 7 p.m. in ETSU's Martha Street Culp Auditorium. It's part of the fare for An Evening of Health Wellness & the Arts co-sponsored by the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and College of Public Health. A catered reception, beginning at 6 p.m., precedes the free performance.

"Mercy Killers" depicts the plight of a blue-collar mechanic, Joe, whose wife has cancer, and their life-and-death struggle with the American health care system.

"We hear people debating health care reform all the time, but we rarely look at what it means to an ordinary citizen," says Mark Plesent, artistic director of Working Theater in New York City, one of the early sponsors and purveyors of this Edinburgh Fringe Festival "Fringe First" Award winner.

The one-man show is written and performed by Milligan, a graduate of The Juilliard School, who has appeared on and off Broadway and in regional theaters throughout the country and in Shakespearean productions the world-round. Milligan portrays Joe, a body shop owner and Tea Party proponent, who finds his beliefs shaken when his wife's breast cancer treatments and hospital bills lead them into divorce and bankruptcy, despite the fact that they have insurance.

A staunch believer in the American way of life, Joe prizes hard work, self-reliance and personal liberty. He is deeply in love with his wife and even enjoys their "nuclear" arguments on the dangers of too much Rush Limbaugh and not enough organic foods. Everything changes when she is diagnosed with cancer.

Dubbed a "deeply affecting love story," "Mercy Killers" is an emotional journey of a man who fights for his wife's life using every resource, personal and otherwise, he can muster.

"No one should ever be in a situation that these people in the play find themselves in ... where they lose their health insurance and they are forced to scrap their lives and their quality of living in order to survive," says J. Steven White, supervising producer at the Harold Clurman Lab Theater in Los Angeles.

Reviewers from Edinburgh to the Twin Cities have called the show "raw, emotional and devastatingly honest," "beautiful and heartbreaking" and "one-man theatre at its very best."

Milligan wrote the play, tapping into the growing universal concern over health care, after experiencing his own health care crisis while between insurance coverage periods, as well as after witnessing struggles among his loved ones.

"Over 60 percent of personal bankruptcies in the United States are a result of medical debt," Milligan says. "The majority of these people filing these bankruptcies actually have insurance at the onset of their medical crisis.

"'Mercy Killers' is my attempt to translate this data into the actual human experience of what's that's like for working people, especially since the recession."

The arts provide a perfect vehicle for sharing stories of the human condition, says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. "One of the reasons why we're devoted to co-sponsoring this event annually," she says, "is that the lens of the arts often helps us more deeply understand health care and health and wellness."

Since Edinburgh, productions of "Mercy Killers" have been non-stop in off-Broadway theaters, colleges and universities, performing arts centers, church basements, living rooms and the floors of state legislatures. National and state health care advocacy groups have sponsored events and partnered with arts presenters, including the Working Theater and Harold Clurman Lab Theater and Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

"The intensity of both the acting and the play's themes," says Aisle Say Twin Cities, "packs a serious punch."

For more information on "Mercy Killers," visit

A! ExtraTopics: Film