CHICAGO—Death and taxes may be certainties, but the truth sure isn’t, in Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax, now playing at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre.
In a thought-provoking 85 minutes, each of the self-deluded characters goes to decidedly desperate and sometimes absurd lengths to get what they want: from the recovery of a beloved child, to escaping loneliness, to winning a mother’s love, and for the queen bee of the show, to beating death itself.
Rich, elderly, and dying Maxine (the Tony awarding-winning Deanna Dunagan), angry from a recent phone call with Daughter (Louise Lamson), accuses convalescent home nurse Tina (J. Nicole Brooks) of aiding her daughter in planning a murder—hers.
If the old woman dies after the Jan. 1 tax laws go into effect, Daughter stands to lose a sizable portion of her inheritance. So, reasons Maxine, her daughter wants her to die sooner than later, and Tina seems like the most likely candidate to help.
Although this plot is untrue, Tina agrees to accept Maxine’s enormous bribe to keep the old woman alive past the tax law’s enactment. Tina solicits the help of Todd (Raymond Fox), her supervisor who’s smitten with her, and they go to great lengths to keep the old gal around.
It sounds funnier than it plays. This is not Volpone. (Ben Johnson’s Volpone is about an elderly gentleman who pretends to be dying in order to fool the three men who want his inheritance.)
Complications get stickier when Daughter arrives weeks later on Christmas Eve, hoping to see her mother one last time. Daughter knows that Tina is getting a weekly $1,000 check from Maxine, money that Daughter woefully needs. What she doesn’t know is that Tina will receive a lump sum of $200,000 if Maxine lives to see the new year.
Moral dilemmas abound on all sides.
Hnath follows the current penchant for upending the audience’s expectation of a satisfying ending when he switches tracks in the storyline. But the piece still feels like a whole because of its construction.
Very long monologues dominate each of the five scenes in which each character has the chance to defend his or her actions. As each monologue ensues, we see how both circumstance and single-minded pursuit causes the speaker to miss the fuller truth and then justify his or her own righteousness.
Tina’s manipulation of Todd to help her get Maxine’s money is justified because Tina aims to save her son in Haiti from her evil ex-husband—although she has no proof that the boy needs saving. Todd extends his own money and time on this absurd scheme in the unfounded hope that Tina will love him—when it’s perfectly clear she doesn’t.
Daughter feels that her mother owes her affection and is willing to relinquish her inheritance to prove her mother wrong, in spite of the fact that Daughter is barely hanging on financially.
Maxine feels justified in accusing her daughter of murderous plans, despite the fact that her suspicions are based on hearing only what she agrees with and what she already believes.
Director Heidi Stillman does an admirable job of keeping the wordy script moving swiftly.
This is a character study, through and through. Very little distracts the viewer—the action is contained in a white square painted on a black floor, constricting the characters’ movements as much as their psyches limit their perceptions.
And as a character study, the acting’s the thing. J. Nicole Brooks’s portrayal as Tina is the most sympathetic, which is needed to keep the audience engaged, since the desperation of these characters is one step away from pathetic.
Raymond Fox does a marvelous job of creating an embarrassingly needy man. Louise Lamson as Daughter creates a bitter woman who sees more clearly than the other characters.
At first, Dunagan’s work seems a recent stereotype. We’ve seen plenty of frail and sweet-looking old ladies who shock us with vulgar and acerbic tongues. But trapped in a bed the entire time she’s on stage, Dunagan does top-notch vocal work, from a steely “I’m nobody’s fool” to her purring to convince her grandson Charlie (Raymond Fox) she’s right.
I was most intrigued by the ideas the play dangled. If medical science truly is able to prolong our lives indefinitely, what is the cost to others? And what if that human life is “awful”—to quote Charlie’s description of his grandmother?
These questions aren’t going away anytime soon. I hope that Hnath spends more time considering them.
The Lookingglass Theatre
821 N. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Closes: Oct. 12