'Mercy Killers' zeros in on cancer, divorce and the politics of health care

  • Updated: April 25, 2014 - 2:03 PM

Actor Michael Milligan brings his topical one-man show to Minneapolis.

Michael Milligan wrote and performs in the one-man show “Mercy Killers,” at Pillsbury House Theatre through May 4.

About the only prop that Broadway actor Michael Milligan uses onstage at Pillsbury House Theatre is a red baseball cap. It shades his eyes at first, then he removes it.

Save for a folding table, a chair and a low-hung light, the stage is bare.

Yet the actor, agitated and antsy, ably transports us to a world of hurt and desperation in “Mercy Killers.” The one-act, one-person play opened Wednesday in Minneapolis. Milligan plays Joe, who owns an auto-body shop and is a big Rush Limbaugh fan.

Joe is steadfast about his red-state political beliefs until his wife is stricken with cancer and loses her health insurance. The two lose their home. The only way for them to make her medical care affordable is to divorce.

He does more than that, which explains his current dilemma. Joe is being questioned in a basement room in an Ohio police station. The officers are offstage, somewhere in the audience. But we are less his interrogator than witnesses to a sad story.

Dressed in layers of dark clothes that include a coat and a hoodie, Milligan’s Joe looks like someone who may have to sleep under a bridge.

Milligan wrote the 60-minute play, which was a success in the New York Fringe Festival and is touring the nation. Directed by Tom Oppenheim, the production is equal parts agitprop theater in a venue known for socially engaged works and a vehicle for Milligan to show his theatrical chops.

Milligan has had roles on Broadway in “August: Osage County,” “La Bête” and “Jerusalem.” Under Oppenheim’s guidance in “Mercy Killers,” he invests Joe with intense physicality, even as he shows glimmers of tenderness.

The story is told as much with gestures as with words that come flying out like flushed birds. Even his incomplete sentences are telling. When he recalls the vows he and his wife made to each other, he emphasizes the verb and leaves out the traditional last word.

“Till death do us,” he says, pausing.

“Mercy Killers” is a raw, topical piece that shows the collision of ideals and reality in a system where health and well-being go up against profits. It is a show that is very much of the zeitgeist.

Rohan.Preston@startribune.com • 612-673-4390

  • ‘MERCY KILLERS’

    Who: Written and performed by Michael Milligan. Directed by Tom Oppenheim.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends May 4.

    Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: Pay-what-you-wish. 612-825-0459 or www.pillsburyhousetheatre.org.

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