To my children: We have not spoken about end-of-life issues — my end-of-life issues. After seeing Pillsbury House Theatre's "Death Tax," I intend to rectify this situation. Playwright Lucas Hnath makes awkward lurches into implausibility in this flawed fable, but he is dead-on real and honest in his topic: money and dying.
Pillsbury House's production puts this potent stuff into the hands of actors Regina Marie Williams and Wendy Lehr, who receive able contributions from Tracey Maloney and Clarence Wethern. Directed lightly by Hayley Finn in a bare-bones staging, these four breathe life into the flesh-and-blood story about a wealthy nursing home resident fixated on her lucre as the body clock ticks down.
"People who have money are preserved. … If one does not get preserved, things get messy," declares Lehr's Maxine, who is convinced that her estranged daughter (Maloney) is trying to kill her.
Maxine enlists her nurse, Tina (Williams), in a cash-incentive plan: keep the old lady alive until the new year, when tax changes will reduce the amount her daughter can claim. Wow, talk about spite!
The bonus would help Tina, who has her own family problems in her native Haiti. She exploits her supervisor, Todd (Wethern), who is infatuated with her, and we have a real crime story.
Hnath's compact play takes a weird twist in the final scene, forgivable because it serves his greater theme. Suffice it to say, the worm turns and karma is brutal when the mattresses we have stuffed with cash are depleted.
Williams carries the show dramatically, introducing the five scenes and appearing in every one. Her Tina presents an enigmatic, placid surface that occasionally roils with emotion. She is manipulative, quietly cruel, coldly focused on her misdeed and yet fully sympathetic.
Hnath wrote the role of Maxine as a mix of realism and improbability. To wit: In dementia, her mind seems sharp as a tack; near death in one scene, she becomes a medical miracle. Lehr does what superior actors do: She plays her scenes honestly. Her Maxine is blunt and profane; tough as nails one minute, a fragile supplicant the next.
Maloney gets only one scene as the daughter. She shows an active and inquiring mind about her character, playing it with perfect blue-collar smarts and heartbreaking authenticity.
Wethern finds the trapped man inside Todd and later switches deftly to a confident and assured guy who is the end-of-play catalyst.
"Death Tax" discusses issues that many of us should be discussing. The ideas are not profound, yet seeing them illustrated in real humanity reminds us that day is coming.