It doesn’t take long for the characters in David Rabe’s “A Question of Mercy” to begin shedding euphemisms and get to the point. In the first full scene, a man asks a semi-retired doctor to “intervene” on behalf of “a friend.” By the next scene, though, the man admits that the friend is really his lover, suffering horribly from AIDS, and that “what he wants is to die.” For the next two acts, Rabe argues the issue of euthanasia as only an accomplished dramatist could — not with haranguing speeches from the safety of soap boxes but with layered characters who often struggle to understand what they think in the first place and then wonder why their rational conclusions just don’t feel right. A sure-handed, straightforward and smartly acted production at the Pacific Resident Theater successfully captures this conflict between intellect and emotion. The result is provocative but never simplistic, powerful but never morbid.
Robert Bailey plays Dr. Robert Chapman, a respected surgeon who has stopped practicing medicine but kept up his medical license. He’s approached by the gentle but uneasy Thomas (Kevin Rahm), who introduces the doctor to his lover Anthony (George Villas), an elegant, charismatic Colombian man in the throes of the disease.
Anthony implores the doctor to help, and every time Chapman, the rational scientist par excellence, starts to pull away, Anthony draws him back in. Almost before he knows it, Chapman is intimately involved in the situation.
It’s one thing to help someone commit suicide, and another to participate in a more active manner. Chapman can advise Anthony all he wants, but he knows that killing oneself with a handful of barbiturates is a lot harder than it seems.
This is intelligently displayed with a series of lessons, in which Chapman tries to teach the impatient Anthony the best way to pop pills — not too quickly lest he regurgitate them, not too slowly lest he lose conscious control before he’s done. Anthony wants Chapman, or Robert, as he very carefully begins to call him, to inject him with further drugs should that be necessary.
But the logistics of death are really secondary here to the emotional elements: the unexpected effects the planning has on Chapman, on Thomas, and on the couple’s friend Susanah (Valerie Dillman), who knows she has an essential role in this episode but isn’t quite sure what it is. As the play gets closer and closer to the day of reckoning, the characters’ certainties begin to melt away.
Rabe heightens the language, inserts a couple of dream sequences and allows the characters to address the audience directly. It’s a recipe for overacting, but the performers here are all nicely restrained.
In the most flamboyant and therefore most difficult of the roles to keep simple, Villas captures Anthony’s histrionics without becoming overbearing. There are times when the connection between Anthony and Chapman seems a bit underplayed, but that’s so preferable to the alternative it can hardly be considered a flaw.
There’s a patient quality to Matt Gottlieb’s direction, a knowing sense that honest, composed moments can build the cumulative tension; if the simmering is slow enough, there’s no need for contrived scenes of emotional release.
The acting is low-key, the design elements simple, with the exception of a large, pastel-colored, painting upstage. The dates of the events, all of which occur in a span of a month in 1990, are projected onto the back wall, which contribute effectively to the inevitable crawl toward an appointed date with death. The closer that date comes, the more surprises Rabe delivers.