Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Death Tax
Pillsbury House Theatre

Also see Arthur's reviews of The Manchurian Candidate, Huck Finn, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins

Wendy Lehr and Regina Marie Williams
Death Tax, a play by Lucas Hnath being given its Twin Cities premiere at the Pillsbury House Theatre, raises many interesting and unanswerable questions. The play, ninety minutes without intermission, turns out to be more compelling as a subject of post-play conversation than as a theatrical experience. This is no small thing. Many a far more entertaining evening had evaporated from my thoughts by the next day, whereas fuel for addressing life's difficult questions is a rare thing indeed.

The story unfolds with Maxine, an elderly nursing home resident who appears to be approaching the end of her life. Maxine is convinced that her daughter, with whom she has a barely speaking relationship, is paying one of the nurses at the home to speed up Maxine's demise, before first-of-the-year changes in the estate taxes—sometimes called the "death tax"—reduce the size of the inheritance she will receive. Nurse Tina, a transplant to the U.S. from Haiti with challenges of her own, adamantly denies being part of such a scheme, but in Maxine's delusion sees an opportunity to advance her situation. Tina's supervisor Todd, with whom she had a romantic relationship from which they are "taking a break" (her idea, not his), is pulled into the intrigue. When the un-named daughter shows up, matters only get more confusing. Who is telling the truth? Who is manipulating whom?

The final scene moves forward in time, past the preceding Sturm und Drang to an ending that invites us to speculate on what we might do, how might we respond under the same conditions. Are there moral imperatives that should be adhered to? Should the quality of end-of-life be determined by how much money a person has? By how kind and likeable they are?

Though Death Tax prompts provocative questions, Hnath's writing is somewhat stilted, and the plotting at times lacks a feeling of truth. Maxine's pronouncements sound stagy and rehearsed. Why would Tina so candidly reveal her past troubles to Maxine? Would Todd really be taken in by Tina's blatantly manipulative entreaties? Repeatedly, there are decisions that seem out of step with the reality of their context.

That said, the cast of four do remarkable work at fleshing out their characters. Regina Marie Williams creates a believable, morally ambiguous Tina, and gives authenticity to her Haitian accent. In spite of self-serving, manipulative behavior, her Tina manages to elicit sympathy for her plight. Williams is a genius at expressing feelings on her face, so we always know which way her heart is pointed. Clarence Wethern gives Todd moral fiber and decency, but also unmet yearnings that weaken his resolve and push him toward a slippery slope. Later, as Maxine's grown grandson Charlie, Wethern conveys the icy demeanor of a would-be loved one who has grown practiced at fending off manipulative entreaties.

Wendy Lehr is a wonderfully nasty and paranoid Maxine, unpleasant enough to give her fears that her family is trying to do her in a bit of plausibility. My only qualm with Lehr's performance, which is issued completely reclined in a hospital bed, is that she appears to be far too hale and hearty to be as near death as the script wants us to believe. As the unnamed daughter, Tracey Maloney conveys the tortured struggle in her relationship with her mother, condemning her mother and herself in equal measure. Of all the characters, she evokes the most sympathy, in part because she is so helpless to resolve the conflict she faces, and yet seems most willing to make an effort.

The play takes place on a setting of bare white walls, with Maxine's hospital bed positioned in a central alcove, and Todd's office and the visitor's waiting room on either side. The starkness of the set draws us back to the interactions between characters, and suggest a false sense of clinical protection where the adage "first do no harm" is always followed.

Death Tax is one of those plays that, for me, is more admired than enjoyed. It covers important ground. The post-play conversation with my companion that evening included such questions as: What is the virtue of continuously extending human life expectancy? Who decides who receives extraordinary, life-extending care, and how is it paid for? Is a life bereft of love worth extending? How does our behavior throughout life play out at life's end? What is it we fear about the end of life?

I had similar conversations the next day with others who had not even seen the play. Even if flawed, any work of art—visual, literary, musical or dramatic—that can prompt such meaningful, important discussions has a place in our lives, and in this case, on our stage.

Death Tax continues through April 4, 2015, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit

Written by Luca Hnath; Director: Hayley Finn; Set Design: John Francis Bueche; Costume Designer: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Designer: Michael Wangen; Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Designer: Kellie Larson; Dialect Coach: Barbara Pierre-Louis; Production Stage manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Production Assistant: Blayn Lemke; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noel Raymond

Cast: Wendy Lehr (Maxine), Tracey Maloney (Daughter), Clarence Wethern (Todd, Charley), Regina Marie Williams (Tina, Candice)

Photo: Kerri Picket

- Arthur Dorman

Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region

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