A Question of Mercy

By David Rabe; Directed by Jim Petosa

Tim Spears as Anthony and Paula Langton as Doctor Chapman in A Question of Mercy. Photo by Stan Barouh.

BOTTOM LINE: Completely gripping. This life and death tale questions the moral implications involved with assisted suicide, and the honor behind the action. A serious and provocative night at the theatre.

Is it worse to help your loved one die or to watch them suffer through the anguish of AIDS? Is the legality of assisted suicide enough to deter you from condemning your loved one to months of pain until they eventually reach their demise anyway? And what if a quick death is the only thing they have left to live for? These are the dilemmas faced in David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy, and the price of their answers weighs heavily on everyone’s minds.

Confrontational and provocative, the PTP/NYC production of this 1998 drama is both sympathetic and engaging. It jumps head-first into the tense, uncomfortable text, and brings to life a realistic saga that encourages the audience to internalize it all. Director Jim Petosa gives his characters ample opportunity to indulge in the drama and the cast does a remarkable job of bringing the tale to its terrible reality.

Anthony (Tim Spears) is dying and he doesn’t make it look fun. In fact, his final breath can’t come soon enough. Although there are light moments and laughs as he copes with his reality, the severity of the disease is no joking matter. His partner Thomas (Alex Cranmer) is distraught and tired – he wants to fulfill Anthony’s wishes to end it all. The couple elicits the help of a retired doctor and acquaintance, Dr. Chapman (Paula Langton), and tries to convince her to assist with Anthony’s death. Subsequent moral questioning ensues.

Rabe’s script is compelling and makes for a stimulating night at the theatre. It’s hard to disassociate yourself from the action; it’s incredibly affecting. This is, in large part, due to the performances themselves. The pain is evident in all three of the aforementioned characters and the actors do a great job bringing the vulnerability to the surface. This play would not work without committed performances.

One unfortunately disappointing component is the disparity between acts. Act I is rooted in reality. At intermission, the story that has been laid out is completely plausible and told with the most genuine attention to the truth of the conflict. Although the script contains some monologues and direct address to the audience, the plot plays itself out with a great sense of reality. Act II, however, gets a little interpretive. With added dream sequences as the tension grows, the conceit jumps to a hyperbolic and overtly theatrical place. The production itself indulges in these moments. Some audiences might find this exciting. I personally think Rabe should’ve induced Act I with some of the conventions used later on.

At the end of the day, A Question of Mercy is a highly enjoyable play and this production is remarkably resonant. It’s not a passive audience experience, but if you are looking for entertainment that makes you think, I highly recommend seeing this show. As I left the theatre with my fellow audience members, I overheard them talking about their experiences. And they couldn't stop talking. The word "powerful" was used repeatedly and their excitement was contagious. If that doesn't illustrate the effect of live theatre, I don't know what does. 

(A Question of Mercy is produced by PTP/NYC and plays at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through August 1, 2010. Remaining performances are Sunday 7/18 at 7:30pm, Monday 7/19 at 7:30pm, Wednesday 7/21 at 7:30pm, Saturday 7/24 at 7:30pm, Sunday 7/25 at 3pm, Monday 7/26 at 7:30pm, Thursday 7/29 at 7:30pm, Friday 7/30 at 7:30pm, and Sunday 8/1 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15-$25 and are available at For more show info visit