BU Today

Arts & Entertainment

In Search of Medical Mercy

School of theatre delves into David Rabe’s dark play


In the slide show above, Jim Petosa discusses the moral dilemma faced by the characters in A Question of Mercy.

Debate over President Obama’s proposed health-care reform bill riveted Jim Petosa to a television screen for most of the summer — and resulted in the College of Fine Arts current theatrical production.

“I saw discussions between doctors and patients about end-of-life issues become demonized into these notions of death panels,” recalls Petosa, director of CFA’s school of theatre. “The fear and hysteria reminded me of a play that explores this very topic.”

Petosa, who is also artistic director of the Olney Theatre Center, in Olney, Md., directed David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy when it premiered 10 years ago at the Olney. Based on an essay by physician Richard Selzer, the play fictionalizes Selzer’s experience treating an AIDS patient who wants to end his life. Essay and play grapple with an unanswerable question: is this mercy or murder?

“I remembered the play’s potency,” Petosa says, “and I thought it was an appropriate time to resurrect it.”

A Question of Mercy begins several years after Anthony, a Colombian immigrant, has been infected with AIDS. By the time his lover, Thomas, contacts Dr. Chapman to assist in Anthony’s suicide, the young man’s emaciated body is ravaged; he can barely speak. Despite their reservations, Chapman and Thomas want to abide by Anthony’s wishes. The questions then become: how to do it? and how not to get caught?

In one scene, Chapman examines a caduceus, the symbol of the American medical profession. The emblem, a staff entwined by two serpents in the form of a double helix, also represents the delicate balance between good and evil.

“She wants to do the merciful and moral thing,” Petosa explains, “but she no longer knows what that is.”

Even after directing the play twice, Petosa does not know if prolonging or ending Anthony’s life is the more merciful act. “I feel an overriding sense of ambiguity,” he says. “I don’t know the right answer, but I believe the play has forced me to explore the issue in a much deeper way.”

Petosa enlisted colleagues from the School of Medicine for a first-ever collaboration between the school of theatre and the Medical Campus. “We’ve had wonderful meetings with physicians and medical students who have volunteered to participate in post-show discussions,” he says. “That’s when the really interesting conversations will occur.”

The school of theatre also partnered with campus student groups Spectrum, Project Hope, UNICEF, and Hug Don’t Hate, along with the Howard Thurman Center, to include A Question of Mercy in the event lineup for World AIDS Week.

A Question of Mercy runs through Saturday, December 19, at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $10 for seniors and members of the BU community (ID required) and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Performance times vary, and some will be followed by discussions; check the calendar.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


2 Comments on In Search of Medical Mercy

  • Elizabeth Mazar on 12.11.2009 at 12:08 pm


    Thanks, Vicky, for this wonderful slide show and accompanying article. If the BU community wants to learn more about BCAP, please direct them to our BCAP website, http://www.bu.edu/cfa/bcap. They can find our mission statement, talk-back series information, ticketing links, photos from current and past shows, and more on this site. Thanks for spreading the word!

  • Anonymous on 12.12.2009 at 2:45 am

    i love this

Post Your Comment

(never shown)