Dealing with an HMO or any medical insurance company––nothing can make even the most successful person with great coverage feel more powerless. Having to trust your fate to the whims of a bureaucracy whose main goal is deriving profits rather than delivering care can suck the humanity out of even the most well-adjusted and well-insured person. And, for all difficulties faced by the most privileged among us, nowhere in our allegedly classless society is the distinction between having and having-not more clearly delineated than in the administration of health insurance.
John Belluso’s new play, “Pyretown,” is a stirring examination of the dehumanizing impact of business on people and the existential heartlessness that results from the inevitable distancing of people from people upon which the system relies. Belluso uses the HMO as a metaphor for a systems in our culture that both provide a service and a serve as a hiding place.
Belluso tells the story of Louise, a welfare mom separated from her husband trying to get tests approved for her sick daughter and Harry, a wheelchair-bound student, trying to get care for his chronic conditions. He obviously chose the names in echo of the advertising characters used early in the Clinton administration to deep-six the former president’s plan to overall the nation’s healthcare system. Belluso’s Harry and Louise meet, both of them locked in frustration at the system, and fall in love to a certain extent, but in the end, the HMO controls their relationship and some life choices Louise must make.
In a lyrical and heart-wrenching 90 minutes, Belluso shows us the costs of reducing people to statistics, taking aim at the loss of choice that creates in Harry and Louise a helplessness that drains them of what little dignity they cling to.
Deirdre O’Connell delivers a finely layered performance as Louise, a woman who at 39 can’t believe a man who is14 years younger would fall in love with her just for herself. O’Connell is an actress of incredible skill and range who delivers on every moment of the piece with a transparency and truthfulness that is awe-inspiring. Just at the point when Louise’s heart finally begins to open to Harry, the reality of the need to provide for her daughter closes in on her, causing Louise to sacrifice her own happiness because she has no choice.
Christopher Thornton plays Harry with a simmering passion that becomes harder and harder to watch as we see the futility of his fight. Every small win comes at an enormous cost, not just for his healthcare but for his life. Thornton, confined to a wheelchair, manages to convey an intense but understated physicality in the role in perfectly synch with the crippling system in which Harry and Louise are caught.
This is not easy stuff, but it is forceful and honest, and demands to be seen and heard, even as we all become more controlled by systems beyond our control.