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One-man show takes look at U.S. health care system
Mercy Killers

JOHNSON CITY – (Feb. 10) As the Affordable Care Act is being reassessed by a new Congress and administration, Michael Milligan is bringing his unblinking and very personal look at health care to the stage at East Tennessee State University.

Milligan’s one-man show, “Mercy Killers,” will be in the spotlight on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium as the 2017 program for the annual An Evening of Health, Wellness and the Arts, co-sponsored by the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and the College of Public Health.

A catered reception will follow the free one-act performance, and work by Quillen College of Medicine students, sponsored by the Gold Humanism Honor Society, will be on display in the Alumni Gallery before and after the show.

“Mercy Killers” depicts the plight of a blue-collar mechanic Joe, whose wife has cancer, and their life-and-death struggle with the American health care system.

“We hear people debating health care reform all the time but we rarely look at what it means to an ordinary citizen,” says Mark Plesent, artistic director of Working Theater, New York City, where “Mercy Killers”was produced in 2014.

The one-man show is written and performed by Milligan, a graduate of The Juilliard School, who has appeared on and off Broadway and in regional theaters throughout the country and in Shakespearean productions around the globe.

Milligan portrays Joe, a body shop owner and Tea Party proponent, who finds his beliefs shaken when his wife’s breast cancer treatments and hospital bills lead them into divorce and bankruptcy, despite the fact that they have insurance.

A staunch believer in the American way of life, Joe prizes hard work, self-reliance and personal liberty. He is deeply in love with his wife and even enjoys their “nuclear” arguments on the dangers of too much Rush Limbaugh and not enough organic foods. Everything changes when she is diagnosed with cancer.

Dubbed a “deeply affecting love story,” “Mercy Killers” is an emotional journey of a man who fights for his wife’s life using every resource, personal and otherwise, he can muster.

“No one should ever be in the situation that these people in the play find themselves in,  where they lose their health insurance and are forced to scrap their lives and their quality of living in order to survive,” says J. Steven White, supervising producer at the Harold Clurman Lab Theater in Los Angeles.

Reviewers from Edinburgh to the Twin Cities have called the show “raw, emotional and devastatingly honest,” “beautiful and heartbreaking” and “one-man theatre at its very best.”

Milligan wrote the play, tapping into the growing universal concern over health care, after experiencing his own health care crisis while between insurance coverage periods, as well as after witnessing struggles among his loved ones.

“Over 60 percent of personal bankruptcies in the United States are a result of medical debt,” Milligan says. “The majority of these people filing the bankruptcies actually have insurance at the onset of their medical crisis. ‘Mercy Killers’ is my attempt to translate this data into the actual human experience of what that’s like for working people, especially since the recession.”

After the cancer surgery “… those bills that are coming back,” the character Joe says, “they’re almost as scary as the surgery. I just wanted to get the story out there because I think that something like this might happen to anybody.”

The arts provide a perfect vehicle for sharing stories of the human condition, says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “One of the reasons why we’re devoted to co-sponsoring this event annually,” she says, “is that the lens of the arts often helps us more deeply understand health care and health and wellness.”

Over the years, the topics of An Evening of Health, Wellness and the Arts – part of the College of Public Health’s “Leading Voices in Public Health” lecture series – have explored how different artistic media interface with health and how they, uniquely, capture the realities of our health challenges, says Dr. Randy Wykoff, dean of ETSU’s College of Public Health.

Previous Evenings featured performances by actor David Nathan Schwartz and storyteller Joseph Sobol and ensemble; illusionist Kevin Spencer; documentarian John Hoffman; pianist Robin Spielberg; and comedian Drew Lynch in 2016.

“There is, perhaps, no medium that is more directly emotional than the stage,” Wykoff says. “‘Mercy Killers’ presents a health and social challenge to us in a way that is powerful and impactful on the one hand, but also subtle and thought-provoking on the other.

“At the basic level, I hope that the audience better understands the complexity of our health challenges. On a deeper level, I hope that the audience sees how important it is to fully understand a complex situation before passing any ‘judgment.’”

Since the show won the “Fringe First” award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, productions of “Mercy Killers” have been non-stop in off-Broadway theaters, colleges and universities, performing arts centers, church basements, living rooms and the floors of state legislatures. National and state health care advocacy groups have sponsored events and partnered with arts presenters, including Working Theater and Harold Clurman Lab Theater and Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

For more information on “Mercy Killers,”visit For more information on Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit or call 423-439-8587.

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