New York actor Michael Milligan was in the middle of a public play reading when he started to feel weird. He excused himself and rushed home. As the pain in his body began to escalate, he started to weigh his options. Should he go to the emergency room? How much would it cost? What would happen if he didn’t? Would it pass? What exactly was wrong with him?
In a panic, he attempted to diagnose himself online and decided it could be kidney failure. Milligan didn’t have health insurance, and the free actors’ clinic was not open on weekends. It was Friday night.
“When I saw online how much it would cost to go to the ER, I decided not to go,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend all the money I had in the world.”
Fortunately, what turned out to be kidney stones passed within 24 hours. But the hours of psychological terror left a lasting mark. Initially convinced he had organ failure, Milligan reflected on the fact that the high cost of treatment had kept him from seeking what could have been life-saving medical treatment.
He’d seen similar struggles of the uninsured before — with friends, lovers and fellow actors. But for the first time, the barbarism of his country’s health care system really hit home, he said.
“While I was lying there in pain that night, I thought about writing a play,” he said. “The play was incubating. With my experience, I got the resolve to do it.”
In the days and weeks that followed, he read more than a dozen books on the American health care system and interviewed people who shared their health care horror stories and financial disasters. He’d also been involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, where he met people who were in even worse situations.
“Despite my experience, I realized I was living in a bubble,” Milligan said. “I think people are often so burdened by their own individual struggle that the idea of taking part in a social movement doesn’t even seem like a possibility. There’s a silent Holocaust going on.”
Aware of the power for storytelling when it comes to raising awareness, Milligan began performing his one-man play, “Mercy Killers,” a year ago in a Minnesota theater on his day off, while in town performing another play. It caught on and soon caught the attention of “single-payer” advocates and legislators from around the country.
In a single-payer health care system, a single entity — such as a government-run organization — would collect all health care fees and pay out all health care costs, similar to Medicare but for the entire population.
“Mercy Killers” examines themes in the American health care system through the eyes of Joe, a man who is being interrogated by police over the death of his terminally ill wife, Jane. Joe is an all-American apple pie, Rush Limbaugh-loving, blue-collar patriot with Libertarian leanings. But his love of country, life and liberty are thrown into question when his wife becomes sick. Suddenly, the American Dream is not what it seems.
The play’s timely topic has attracted audiences with diverse political backgrounds, said Milligan.
Milligan has appeared in several Broadway shows, including “August: Osage County,” “La Bete” and “Jerusalem.” While studying at Juilliard, he won the John Houseman Prize for excellence in classical drama. He has also performed at many leading regional theaters.
The Nevada County Chapter of Health Care for All, in collaboration with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company, is bringing Milligan’s “Mercy Killers” to the Off Center Stage in Grass Valley Nov. 5 and 6.
Each of the two local performances will be followed by a panel discussion including Milligan, moderator Dr. Roger Hicks of Yubadocs Urgent Care, Rose Roach, field director of the California School Employees Association (Nov. 5) and Cindy Young, campaign coordinator for Campaign for a Healthy California (Nov. 6).
Doors will open at 6 p.m. with refreshments by Summer Thyme’s and live music; the play will begin at 7 p.m.
The local presentation of “Mercy Killers” and its tour through California are timed to coincide with the recently launched Affordable Care Act. It is projected that between 3 million and 4 million Californians will remain uninsured after the ACA is fully implemented. Health Care for All, along with the Campaign for a Healthy California, is committed to replacing private health insurance with a single-payer system, which they say guarantees health care for all Californians.
“Every academic study done has had the same conclusion — that under a single-payer system, everyone’s insured, money is saved, the quality of medical care is improved, and lives are saved,” said Young, who will be part of the Grass Valley panel Nov. 6. “A for-profit health care system is not in the best interest of the people. Those opposing single payer are worse than Big Tobacco — it’s not just the insurance industry. It’s pharmaceuticals, medical devices, the hospital industry — even the ‘not for profit’ hospitals — that’s just a numbers game. Health care is a basic need, like clean water — delivering a profit to your investors should not be part of the equation.”
But above all, said Milligan, “Mercy Killers” is a great night of entertainment.
“It’s a really beautiful love story and an interesting piece of theater,” he said. “I’ve longed for theater that was more relevant, and this is it.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.