Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Death Tax
Mustard Seed Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Biloxi Blues

Kim Furlow and Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
There are grim little laughs scattered liberally throughout Lucas Hnath's 95-minute play Death Tax, which debuted in 2012. That's thanks mostly to Kim Furlow as Maxine, an elderly patient in a nursing home, loudly complaining about her expensive care, and about her prodigal daughter. And Jeanitta Perkins gets rueful laughs as a green card holding Haitian caretaker in modern-day America in this Mustard Seed Theatre production.

But it's the darkest side of consumerism in which Mr. Hnath's characters are emotionally cut-off from each other, caught between their own desires and the penury of raising families or mounting nursing home bills. In the middle of of it, Ms. Furlow is cynical and calculating, like old Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life—which may sound like a critical snub. And yet, under the direction of Bess Moynihan, Ms. Furlow's cantankerous performance is a springboard for much-needed comedy. Her Maxine develops into an iconic symbol of isolation and fear in a land of plenty. In a perfect theatrical moment, all the division she's caused bears down on her at the end.

Till then, just try to keep in mind that Death Tax manages to be both original and funny.

In this play, we are a nation of coddled consumers, and no one knows how to listen empathetically to the needs of others. When we do reach out for assistance from other Americans, we are perceived as squalling babies, which may be why we must now rely on green card holders from Haiti to handle all of our end-of-life indignities. And perhaps it's inevitable that the characters in Death Tax each sound vaguely unconvincing as they plead for kindness and understanding in a land of armchair potentates. Each is mired in suspicion: Is Maxine's daughter just bribing Tina (the nurse) to kill the old woman off? Is Tina really in a custody battle over her little boy back in Haiti? Or are they all just putting on shows for their own reasons?

Ms. Perkins seems born to the stage, as Tina and much later in the story as Candice, a perky young social worker. Her fluidity of movement and just-right reactions to everyone around her make it nearly impossible to look away. But she also knows how to "turn it off" when Reginald Pierre, first as a nursing supervisor, or Kristen Strom as Maxine's daughter become a wailing chorus in this Florida nursing home.

Death Tax really has the emotional outline of a darkly comical version of Potterville from the nightmare sequence of It's a Wonderful Life, perhaps by way of Greek drama, in its emotional speeches and furies. Todd (Mr. Pierre) is wracked by a sense of doom over being alone. And Ms. Strom's "Daughter" exposes dread over raising a son on a single mother's hourly wages. Someone, or something, is missing from all their lives—something like Jimmy Stewart's boundless sense of community, before wishing he'd never been born.

In this vision of modern (and near-future) America, he never is born. But the Greek-style monologs, and set designer Jamie Perkins' looming, monolithic walls that come rolling toward us like tidal waves to create new playing areas, remind us that greater forces are still at work in all their lives.

Death Tax, through May 19, 2019, at Mustard Seed Theatre, Fontbonne University, 6800 Wydown Blvd., St. Louis MO (enter from Big Bend Blvd., along the west side of the campus). For tickets and information visit

Maxine: Kim Furlow
Daughter: Kristen Strom
Nurse Tina/Candice: Jeanitta Perkins*
Todd/Charley: Reginald Pierre

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association

Technical Director: Bess Moynihan
Stage Manager: Kate Slovinski
Assistant Stage Manager: Chelsea Krenning
Prop Designer: Morgan Fisher
Costume Designer: Jane Sullivan
Lighting Designer: Michael Sullivan
Sound Designer: Zoe Sullivan
Crew: Claire Baur & Julian Holt
Artistic Director: Deanna Jent
Scenic Designer: Jamie Perkins