BOSTON—On June 30 I was at the First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, which had turned its hall over to Michael Milligan, traveling the country performing his one-man play about a husband and wife trapped in our dysfunctional health care system. I arrived early at the stone church, whose present structure was erected in 1853, to help set up the chairs and clear the stage. The minister, the Rev. Terry Burke, who was a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School, officially retired that day after 31 years as a minister at the church. Burke, a non-smoker, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and his doctors have told him he has six to 12 months to live. He applied for Social Security disability and was denied. He consulted a lawyer. He well might spend his last months struggling to get the disability system to pay for the chemotherapy that sustains his life.
Michael Milligan confronted the callousness of our health care system when he cared for a friend with a serious illness. His play “Mercy Killers,” which he has performed nearly 200 times, chronicles the struggle with insurance companies, drug companies and hospitals that profit from medical distress and then discard terminally ill people when they no longer can pay. The hourlong drama, set in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, occurs in a police station where Joe, an auto mechanic originally from West Virginia, speaks to an unseen investigator. [To see samples from the play, click here.]
“Mercy Killers” opens with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” playing. The song soon morphs into the sound of sirens. Joe explains how he attempted to care for his terminally ill wife, Jane, amid crushing psychological and financial pressures that put him half a million dollars in debt. His neighbors, he tells the police interrogator, held a bake sale to help out and raised $163.
Joe, who buys into the credo of the tea party and quotes Rush Limbaugh, is forced to set his ideology of individualism and self-reliance against a health care system—as well as a banking system that sold him a mortgage with an interest rate that rose—designed to feed corporate profit rather than care for the ill or protect the consumer. Milligan’s high-octane performance is raw with grief, rage and incomprehension. The stark set—a chair, a bright light and a table—highlights Joe’s loneliness, inadequacy and abandonment. And by the end of the play, a for-profit health care system that is responsible for more than 60 percent of all U.S. bankruptcies is no longer just a matter of statistics. Its reality is felt like the blast of a furnace.
Joe tells the investigator:
“So, they gotta find the right cocktail—combination, pump a dozen liters of antibiotic through her. Goes on for months. They’re the ones who got her sick, and now they’re billing us tens of thousands’a dollars for their fuckup. That’s exactly when they let us know the insurance doesn’t want to pay. I call. And they tell me her policy’s been revoked. So I ask if it’s one of those pre-existing condition things. They say no. They got lotsa ways to cut people off. Apparently they sent us a, a fucking form, man, requesting some information about “Jane’s recent employment history.” And because we didn’t respond to it in a “timely fashion” they decided to cancel her policy. We were off the radar those couple months in the trailer park. Mail’s not too reliable, what with the rugrats and meth heads, not to mention the post office got gutted with service cuts. But the Insurance, they don’t give a shit about any that. Truth is, they’re lookin’ for any reason to cut bait, ya know? Somethin’ like breast cancer, that triggers an alarm over there, they run her through their equation, see if there’s any way they can cut her loose before she costs ’em any more money. And they got an analyst over there gets a bonus every time they find a loophole’ll let’ em throw somebody under a bus! And that’s how the CEO’s pullin’ in 100 million a year in stock options—all of it comes from leaving sick people out to the fuckin’ law of the jungle!
Desperate to get money, he starts scamming customers at his auto shop, upending his pride in being an honest, hardworking American.
“But you get desperate, you gotta bend your own rules,” Joe says. “Pretty soon, it’s like ‘Oh, your engine’s broke? Oh, by the way, we really oughta replace those brake pads, and the filter and the fan belt, and the blah, blah, blah’ and you’re just running it up, playing on their fear. ‘Wouldn’t want your daughter to be the one brakes go out on, now would ya?’ Yeah, that always gets you an extra hundred bucks—if you want it. But no, it’s amazing how easy it is to lie—when someone you love is on the line.”
“There’s all this stuff out there and none of it’s either your fault,” he says a little later, “but you can’t help it, you start makin’ it ’bout the other person. Yeah, it’s her fault I’m fuckin’ greased up seven days a week pullin’ 12 hours a day instead of going to the lake with my buddies. It’s her fault we’re not having sex, we ain’t never gonna have any kids. So, yeah man, you feel bad for thinking any of that. And then it’s just back and forth between them, the guilt and the resentment, and you can’t talk about it, not with her. That’s all she needs to hear—you gonna make her feel bad for being sick?”
Milligan, who appeared on Broadway in “August: Osage County,” “La Bête” and “Jerusalem” and who has played many of the country’s major regional theaters, as well as performing in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company, does not need to spend nights on couches after performing in union halls, community centers and church basements, but the commercialization rampant in health care has also occurred in the arts, as in almost every other area of American life. To say something meaningful, to present theater that holds up our experiences to scrutiny and examination, often requires stepping outside the mainstream, especially given the reliance on corporations to fund the arts.
“I left Juilliard to play the great roles in the regional theaters,” Milligan told me over dinner at the Café Pamplona in Cambridge, Mass., a day earlier. “I found that was difficult and precarious in terms of scratching together a living. I found that the structure was not conducive to great work. Our not-for-profits and big arts institutions are reflections of the corporate culture that runs everything in America. They are organized around maximizing efficiency. Rehearse eight hours because this is how long we have you and we are going to squeeze everything out of you. It is a five-week rehearsal period. In drama school we studied Stanislavski. And for Stanislavski you rehearsed for six months. You did not work eight hours a day. There was an incubation process over a long period of time. You had a company of actors. But in this current system, artists have no say over the creation of the art. Art is controlled by an army of administrators. They cater to an imagined subscriber base. These administrators determine what is done and how it is done. I began as an actor to feel like a day laborer or a mercenary. Actors are hired at the end of the process. They come in after the artistic director and managing director figure out what they are going to sell that next year to keep the doors open and pay for their $50 million building.”
“This play expresses my whole self,” he went on. “It expresses my feelings as a human being. Being hired to do something by a casting director does not compare to this. I collaborate now with activists, people who are grateful that someone cares about what they care about. An actor should have agency. He or she should be part of the collaborative process. We should have a say about what is art. But this means often going out on your own.”
Milligan was a member of a working group of Occupy Wall Street called Health Care for the 99 Percent. He works with the advocacy group Health Care Now. He is committed to theater that tells the story of ordinary people, that allows audiences to see themselves and their experiences reflected on stage. He wants to make people think about their place in the world and the systems of power that dominate their lives. Art is not about entertainment or spectacle. It is about transformation. And by the time Milligan had finished performing the play June 30 he had visibly shaken his audience of about 40 people.
I helped put the chairs away after the performance. I had been in that hall 31 years earlier with Terry Burke. He had brought me over to see the parish. The church was barely surviving in 1983, reduced to about three dozen members, many elderly. It was not clear that it would endure. Burke was nervous, maybe even apprehensive, and excited.
The church is flourishing now. When I went to Burke’s retirement party in the church hall a week before the play, there were about 200 people. He had preached to them innumerable times, visited them in hospitals, conducted the funerals of their fathers, mothers and sometimes their spouses or children. He had comforted them in moments of grief, loss and depression. Among those at the party were young men and women whose lives had been defined by the community he formed around the church. And there were children who will enter that community without him.
Being a minister is like being an actor. The work is ephemeral. It is about personal transformation, empathy and self-reflection. It does not define its worth by profit. It posits that our role in life is to make the world a better place, to protect the weak, to take care of the sick and to love our neighbor as our self. It celebrates the majesty and musicality of language. But those who dedicate their lives to beauty and truth have no place in the corporate state. What does not feed the mania for profit and the cult of the self is superfluous and often ridiculed.
At Burke’s request I read the T.S. Eliot poem “Marina” at his retirement party. The poem is built around Shakespeare’s “Pericles.” The final plays of Shakespeare are filled with poignant reunion scenes, moments when loved ones mysteriously return after being lost. In “Pericles” a father regains a daughter he thought was dead. Shakespeare reminded us at the end of his life that it is those around us, those we love, who matter most.
Eliot uses the metaphor of water in the poem to define the course of our existence. Water flows from streams and rivers, expanding and contracting like our lives, until merging into the vastness of the sea. The place where all waters meet is the place of death. Pericles is conscious of this, even as he rejoices in his reunion with his daughter. In Eliot’s poem the unnamed Pericles asks that he be able to remember, even in death, the sound of his daughter’s joy, the “Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet / Under sleep, where all the waters meet.”
Great actors, like great ministers, know that love and empathy must be honored if we are to be fully human and create sustaining communities. It is a message that is harder and harder to hear amid the din of the corporate state. It is a message that is deeply subversive to capitalists bent on ceaseless exploitation. Those who bring us this message call us back to our better selves. Milligan did it from a stage. Burke did it from his pulpit. Heed them.