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Review: Death Tax at Actors Theatre [Humana Festival]
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Death. It comes to all of us. Or does it?

In a powerfully thought-provoking and lightning-fast 90-minute production, playwright Lucas Hnath explores the lengths individuals will stretch themselves to in order to get what they want.

Maxine is a rich woman “in decline.” In other words, she’s dying. And she is convinced that her nurse, Tina, is in cahoots with Maxine’s daughter to get her there sooner rather than later. 

The reason behind such a dark motive? If Maxine dies before January 1, her daughter pays none of the once-repealed, now reinstated inheritance tax (death tax) on the money Maxine leaves behind. 

Nurse Tina (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) tries to convince Maxine that her ideas are false, but soon she has entwined herself and her boss Todd in a conspiracy to keep Maxine alive, turn a profit from her plan, and use the money to reunite with her estranged son in Haiti.

When Maxine’s unnamed daughter shows up to visit her mother, Tina’s secret is out; but what could be the beginning of a tearful reunion turns out to be the beginning of something quite different.

The five scenes in Death Tax chug with the rhythm and pace of a euro rail train; they flash between long monologues and rapid dialogue. Those monologues could spell death itself for the play and the audience.

But they don’t. There is not an indulgent moment in the entire production. The cast, much to their credit and the credit of director Ken Rus Schmoll, push the story with such intensity and conviction that one hardly notices the passage of time. 

Bernstine starts strong as Nurse Tina and never relents, taking herself and the audience on an emotional journey.

When Tina confronts her boss Todd, the staccato repartee between the two becomes a fascinating ping pong match. And, while Paul Niebanck’s character seems forcibly over-the-top at first, his interpretation of the character synchs with the audience as the story unfolds.  

A powerhouse scene between the Daughter (Danielle Skraastad) and Tina is expertly executed and deeply captivating; it is the highlight of the show. 

The minimalist blocking of the production puts a strong focus on the rhythmic language of the characters. The repetitive and emotionally broken nature of their speech suggests that Hnath has captured the unique vocal patterns individuals display in times of stress and uncertainty. 

This play is pure joy for thinkers. Hnath expertly inserts enough ambiguities and layers to his characters to keep play analysis junkies occupied for months.

And for those who just like a good night out at the theatre? Death Tax has them covered too. Because if an audience can sit in such an intimate space for ninety minutes without a single cough, chair squeak or candy unwrapping, there must be something very special happening.

Death Tax is part of the Actors Theatre Humana Festival and runs through April 1, with performances daily. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling the Actors Theatre box office at (502) 584-1205.

Image: Courtesy Actors Theatre

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About Michelle Rynbrandt

Before landing in the Possibility City, Michelle toured the country performing in various regional theatres. Having been there and done that, she can honestly say that Louisville's cultural opportunities are second to none.

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