In his one-man play "Mercy Killers," Ohio-born Broadway actor Michael Milligan tries to take his audience on a journey into the dark heart of the American health-care crisis, as seen through the eyes of his character, "Joe."
In creating the character and picking his name, Milligan explained, he was aiming for a kind of rock-solid conservative blue-collar man, who has always worked hard for what he's got in life, played by the rules, and expected others to do the same.
"I think I probably just thought about 'Joe the Plumber,'" Milligan said in a phone interview Saturday.
Milligan opened a run of the play at the Van Fleet Theater in Columbus last Wednesday, which will continue through March 9. He'll present it tonight (Monday) at 7 p.m. at ARTS/West in Athens. Admission is free.
In the play, Joe tells his story in flashback to the police; to reveal why he's in police custody might ruin the plot. His story, however, is one of a man who has always believed in hard work and self-reliance. Milligan stressed that his play is in no way trying to satirize these essentially noble qualities: "These are not things to be made fun of," he said.
Joe finds his world turned upside down in more ways than one, when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, his health insurance policy doesn't cover all she needs, and the expenses begin to pile up. As he tries to find the money to take care of his wife, Milligan said, Joe starts to find that his lifelong views about always fending for yourself are facing a challenge.
"He's somebody who's really struggling with his sense of identity," Milligan said.
While many would probably tag the character as leaning to the right, Milligan said, "I wouldn't say that Joe is particularly political." His conservatism, he suggested, is more of the social variety; he believes in traditional, old-fashioned values, and likes to tune in to Rush Limbaugh at his shop. He might even fit into the Tea Party.
Milligan said he tried to undergird his play with a solid base of research, reading multiple volumes on health care and economics, and consulting with physicians, to give it a factual framework. One important source, he said, was the book "Deadly Spin" by former health-insurance executive Wendell Potter, in which the author reveals, in the words of the book's subtitle, "how corporate PR is killing health care and deceiving Americans."
It would be hard to claim that "Mercy Killers" doesn't have a political slant to it – Milligan spoke passionately, for example, of the fact that the United States is somewhat remarkable among First-World nations in not having a national health-care system.
"We do not have a system that gives health-care access to everyone," he said. "And the terrible thing is, we're paying for it anyway." Milligan said that as an actor he has experienced first-hand the insecurities of trying to pay for health care, at one point seeking help at an actors' free clinic in New York after he passed a kidney stone.
"People don't get that in the other industrialized nations of the world; people don't have that experience," he said. In organizing performances in the state, Milligan is also working with the Single Payer Action Network of Ohio.
He insisted, however, that "Mercy Killers" is first and foremost a human drama, about the impacts of trying to deal with a major illness for oneself or a loved one. These include not only economic struggles, he said, but "also the emotional burdens, which I think are not talked about much." As Joe tries desperately to help his wife and stay afloat financially, for example, he said, he has to deal with the anger and resentment that flood over him as he watches his savings and even his house disappear.
"Joe's obviously angry and upset at what's happened, and he's lashing out at what's happened," he said. "And I think these types of feelings are feelings that are created by our particular system… It's noble to make that fight, and go down fighting, but it doesn't have to be that way."
Milligan admitted that one point he hopes to get across in the play is that as individuals are swept up in a family medical crisis, they can easily lose sight of the fact that health care is an issue that might be better addressed as a nation, rather than one family at a time.
"They become so caught up with their personal struggle for survival," he said, that they don't think about addressing the problem in concert with others.
Though he's been accused of writing a political tract, Milligan said, "I don't see it that way. I see it as a morality play. And also, it's a tragedy."