Death Tax by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 1, 2012
My live video blog with Joan Lipkin of The Vital Voice
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The synopsis: "Maxine is rich. Maxine is dying. Maxine thinks Nurse Tina is trying to kill her. When the patient confronts her caretaker, her accusations have unforeseen—and irrevocable—consequences, in this tightly-wound thriller about money, power and the value of a human life."
Like many of the plays we saw at the Humana Festival, Death Tax could stand a bit of trimming, but even in its current form it has a dramatic power that can't be denied, demonstrating forcibly the corrupting effects of money and power—and, for that matter, of want and powerlessness. It also raises disturbing questions: as medical science advances, will we become a race divided between those who can purchase virtual immortality and those who can't? And what will that mean? Death Tax suggests the answers might not be pleasant.
Death Tax unfolds mostly as a series of monologues with a few duet scenes, and provides one of the great monstrous characters of the stage in the character of Maxine. She ruthlessly manipulates everyone around her: Nurse Tina (who is not, in fact, trying to kill her), Tina's boss Todd, Maxine's daughter, and even, in a chilling final scene, a social worker and Maxine's grandson. She uses money and later guilt as weapons to prolong her life, destroying many others in the process. Like Sunset Boulevard, this is an American horror story without the supernatural.
The cast is tremendous. Judith Roberts is a nearly demonic figure as she rages, cajoles, wheedles and generally screws over everyone around her. Quincy Tyler Bernstine carries off the very different roles of Nurse Tina and the social worker with great skill, as does T. J. Kenneally as Todd and the grandson. Danielle Skraastad has only one major scene as the daughter, but she makes it her own.
As is the case with many Humana Festival shows, Death Tax has relatively modest technical demands, so it should be well within the reach of not only regional companies but smaller theatres as well. It has political and moral implications that deserve attention.
Join in the discussion on Twitter with the #hf36 hash tag and follow me @clavazzi. Look for Joan Lipkin's reviews at The Vital Voice.