"They killed her last night!"

by Paul Russell:

I imagine that's grabbed your attention - as it did mine when playwright, Michael Griffiths phoned me with this news the morning after opening night in the Melbourne season of his play: The Magnolia Tree.

The promotional statement for the play says it all:

This gripping play has two endings, and at the completion of Act 2, the audience vote for the one they think is appropriate.

A family has come together to choose a nursing home for their mother. She has Alzheimer's. Jack wants them to let her go, tonight, and he has brought the means to do it. Jack will be so convincing that you may find yourself not only being persuaded into thinking that his way is right, but wondering whether this is a new morality struggling to evolve. On the other hand you may feel that this is just good old evil, hidden in the sheepskin of logic.

Let her go? Place her in a home? You decide.

And so I went to see the play with some trepidation, expecting to be challenged and wondering at the dark nature of the plot and the three characters whom the audience directs either to a sinister or benign outcome.

Let's be clear at this point: While this is about euthanasia, it is not about euthanasia as we commonly understand it. After all, there was no possibility of consent. Euthanasia, as discussed in the media and in legislation, suggests that 'voluntariness' is intrinsic to the definition; it is not. The characteristic that separates euthanasia from murder is that the act was committed for 'compassionate reasons', usually implying that the deceased had a significant illness. So-called 'voluntary euthanasia' is actually a sub-category.

The play opens with a discussion between the three siblings about placing their demented mother in a nursing home. As the dialogue develops we learn bit-by-bit about the dark past of each of the characters. The discussion soon turns to the inevitable subject: money. To be precise, the cost of the nursing home and the consequent decimation of the inheritance.

We learn something about the two sisters. One is in serious financial difficulties and dreams of a way out; the other wants a new life, leaving behind 11 years of caring for her mother. Both, we learn, see benefits from the mother's estate as the means to their own ends; an estate that would be eaten up almost entirely by the nursing home.

The son seems far more cool and calculating. We are left to wonder at his motivation. Is he being honest when he says he wants to be rid of him mother for her sake and for the sake of his sisters, or is there something else going on?

The brilliant script by Griffiths in exploring the intersection between extant and 'emerging' morality as he puts it sees each character, at various moments, seemingly holding something akin to a moral high ground. Yet, in each, we see serious dysfunction. We wonder at its origins and see glimpses of it in the unfolding history of the poor choices and habits of the sisters.

I was never going to put my hand up for the slaughter of the mother. Yet I did gain a worthwhile insight into how difficult decisions about nursing home care can become a major family feud. It is understandable that emotions will run high and also understandable that the 'filthy lucre' elephant-in-the-room will always be lurking somewhere nearby.

More than that, I think Griffiths' work here explodes the idea that euthanasia and assisted suicide decisions are somehow made with clinically managed, hermetically sealed purity, free from the nuance of dysfunction and hidden agendas that exist in every family. Certainly, the mother in this play was not able to consent; but I wonder, even if she had been lucid enough to say 'yes' to her own demise, whether the influences of her three children could have coloured her 'choice'. Would she have had the strength and clarity given the intensity of these 'competing interests' to say 'no'?

June the 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Elder Abuse is often about the money. Last night I saw a graphic representation of the ultimate in Elder Abuse.

To be fair, as Michael Griffiths explained, 'life' came out on top in the majority of audiences over the last week or so of the play's run at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne. Some audiences laughed a lot through the 70 minute presentation while others, including the night I saw it, quietened at the intensity and gravity of the subject.

Griffiths' digs deep into the landscape of human emotion through characters that are believable in every respect and who, for many, may be in some ways a mirror on themselves or a reminder of their own experiences. But there's also a mirror here to the way our society treats our elders generally. Nursing Homes are continually in the press for mistreatment, poor standards, low staffing levels and actual abuse of their charges. Tight government budgets and shareholder demands for returns put more and more pressure on the bottom line. No wonder that the question of 'being a burden' is so acutely felt by many of our elders as seen graphically in the use of the 'burden' meme as a negative purchase impulse in TV advertisements for funeral insurance.

Griffiths questions whether this kind of phenomenon is some kind of a new and emerging morality. I doubt it. While elder abuse or 'inheritance impatience' as it is often called, is a growing and worrisome phenomenon, such questions will have been around since ever anyone owned property. What concerns me deeply is that the passage of any kind of euthanasia or assisted suicide law would only increase the sense of burden felt by our vulnerable elders while, at the same time, providing the opportunity for subtle and not-so-subtle suggestion and pressure in the knowledge that there exists a new, legal and lethal solution.