At the opening of David Rabe's powerfully gray A Question of Mercy, Thomas (Alex Cranmer) asks Dr. Chapman (Paula Langton), though she is no longer practicing, if she might intervene on behalf of his friend, who is suffering from AIDS. What Thomas is asking for isn't ambiguous--especially given how America's morals have shifted since Rabe was inspired by Richard Selzer's essay in 1997--but it's easy enough to set aside, since Chapman is a steady, uncommitted woman, one who has dealt with enough care and concern for a lifetime. But things shift from a carefully considered case study to a heart-wrenching commitment once the big guns come out: Anthony (Tim Spears) calls Dr. Chapman himself--speaking in short, sharp, desperate breaths, his face a spasm, his body a stooped wreck--and implores her to see him. At that point, to the play's benefit, it becomes a question not of mercy, but of heart.
On the strength of the script, Jim Petosa's production--for PTP/NYC's 24th season--holds up, though the staging--which needs to be unrelenting--has some unfortunately inconsistent transitions. The show alternates between Chapman's hand-wringing monologues--a task that Ms. Langton excels at, never over-emoting, but also not dispassionate--and the plan she and Anthony methodically enact to end his life without anyone suffering too much, or going to jail. However, during some of these breaks--in which characters are frozen in the background--we see the otherwise outstanding Spears as himself (an actor) instead of as the suffering Anthony; Petosa makes a bold choice for the play's lone dream sequences, having Spears move freely for the sake of illustrating how diminished his character is in his nightmare life, but what it actually points out is that Spears is showing us his suffering--he is not caught within it. In fact, it's not until the excellent climax of the play, Bach playing in the background as Anthony attempts to take one pill, then another, then another, that he seems to have lost control entirely.
PTP/NYC boldly takes on tough--intellectually and emotionally--plays, and their work ethic, which gives recent and current students from Middlebury College an opportunity for professional experience and exposure, is admirable. But it can sometime stand in their way, as it does here with A Question of Mercy. Compared to the central three characters, Eddie (Mathew Nakitare) is a throwaway role--he's a significant-in-plot-only doorman. As a device for Rabe, he's meant to lighten the mood, but as used here, he's a caricature who--for some reason--flirts with Dr. Chapman over hockey tickets and becomes a distraction. Worse is Martha Newman's lack of emotion in her role as Susanah, who actually becomes part of that inner circle. Rabe has written her as the cold moralist of the group, the practical, emotionless one, but Newman not only makes her frigid, but makes her seem downright uncaring. It's a by-the-lines performance, and it hurts not just her, but her scene partner, Mr. Cranmer, who is a fantastic emotional wreck (as he should be) whenever he's not with her.
But A Question of Mercy is a near bulletproof play, especially with Langton and Spears in the lead roles. Rabe successfully asks a question and more successfully refuses to give an answer, with assisted suicide coming across both as a necessary right and as a rash, ill-considered act. For two weeks, Dr. Chapman and Anthony discuss the need for, and then the method of, suicide ("Are there no good days?"), and Thomas does his best to suppress himself ("Ignore me"), knowing that his lover's pained selfishness trumps his own. Petosa has, in the end, depicted an honest, painful struggle, and has succeeded in giving life to Rabe's--or Ambrose Pare's--twin serpents: villainy and mercy.