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Death Tax
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Bess Moynihan
Mustard Seed Theatre
May 17, 2019

Kim Furlow, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre has closed its 2018-2019 season with playwright Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax. Something of a morality play with a timely subject matter, the play offers thought-provoking drama and well-drawn characters. Still, although the cast and staging are strong, sometimes it seems the play is trying to say too many things at once.

Hnath is a celebrated and prolific playwright whose works include the Tony-nominated A Doll’s House, Part 2. Death Tax, first staged in 2012, was his first published play. As a script, it makes sense to me that this is a first play, considering its lofty ideas and strong characterization, but somewhat confusing and unbelievable goals and premise. The setup involves an ailing, aging nursing home patient named Maxine (Kim Furlow) and her primary nurse, Tina (Jeanitta Perkins), who narrates the play and sets up its five scenes. For most of the play, the plot focuses on Tina, a divorced immigrant who desperately wishes to be reunited with her young son, who is currently living with his father in Haiti. Maxine, who is estranged from and highly suspicious of her adult daughter (Kristen Strom), presents Tina with an outlandish theory and a shocking proposal that Tina sees as a way to eventually help her see her son again. Standing in the way of Tina’s plans is her supervisor and would-be romantic suitor, the socially awkward and insecure Todd (Reginald Pierre), who is willing to help Tina on his own terms. This sets up a chain of increasingly complicated moral dilemmas for Tina, who becomes even more conflicted after finally meeting Maxine’s daughter. As the scenes progress, more and more unpredictable events happen until the last scene, which features a twist that is at once clever and muddling to the rest of the story. It’s an intense drama for most of the production, but the last scene almost sends it too far into the realm of the absurd, although there are some thought-provoking points raised as well.

The casting here is this production’s greatest strength, led by Perkins in a dual role as the increasingly conflicted and mostly sympathetic Nurse Tina and as a businesslike social worker in one of the scenes. Furlow, as Maxine, is suitably cantankerous, doing the best she can with a character that’s difficult to like. Pierre has a similar issue with his primary role, as the manipulative, self-focused Todd, giving a strong performance in a largely unsympathetic role, and also in another more ambiguous role in another scene. Strom, as the daughter, impresses in what is perhaps the most surprising role in the play, lending much sympathy to the character and her plight.

Technically, Death Tax is well-presented, with a versatile modular set by Jamie Perkins, atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, excellent sound by Zoe Sullivan, and well-suited costumes by Jane Sullivan. Although there are some plot holes, the story raises a lot of timely questions concerning end-of-life care, parent-child relationships, sexual harassment and coercion, and more. Mustard Seed’s production is, as usual, thoughtfully staged and boasts an excellent local cast.

Reginald Pierre, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

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