David Rabe’s gripping new drama, “A Question of Mercy,” confronts the timely topic of assisted suicide. With unsettling candor and disturbing insight, the play arouses pity and understanding of a troubling subject. Director Douglas Hughes has staged the play with conviction, drawing urgency and resonance from his fine principal players.
Based on a New York Times Magazine essay by Dr. Richard Selzer, the drama builds in intensity and dramatic tension after Thomas (Stephen Spinella) asks a retired surgeon (Zach Grenier) to assist in the suicide of his lover, Anthony (Juan Carlos Hernandez), ill with AIDS. Although Anthony is physically exhausted, depressed and experiencing uncommon pain, the doctor, whose training and philosophy has always been for the preservation of life, is reluctant to intervene.
But the physician’s compassion is aroused after a meeting with the patient. A plan unfolds requiring methodical tutoring in the administration of a massive dose of barbiturates. The action proceeds to its harrowing conclusion as if a perfect crime is being devised.
The play sticks single-mindedly to its subject with little digression into character background. There is an uncomfortable and verbally graphic description on the physical aspects of death. The narrative does not spare the clinical or the emotional tribulations of its unsure participants.
The gentle declarations of love and endearments are touching, and the anguish is always near and real. Even the little touches of casual humor find their comforting moments. Finally, Rabe’s provocative tale is an affirmation of dignity that rings clear and true.
The acting is superb. Grenier plays the straightforward medical adviser and narrator with consoling formality, and shifts to haunting nightmares with sweaty realism. Spinella is fine as the frightened and confused lover, as is Veanne Cox, stoic and sturdy as a concerned friend.
Hernandez portrays the courage and humiliation of death with chilling conviction and a quiet sense of grace and dignity.
The simple and lean set and, most certainly, the knowing light design bring a perfect texture to the words and the acting.