DEATH TAXby Lucas Hnath
Amphibian Stage Productions
Directed by René Moreno
Scenic Designer – Bob Lavallee
Lighting Designer – Adam Chamberlin
Sound Designer – David Lanza
Costume Designer – Kathleen Culebro
Properties Designer – Cosmo Jones
Stage Manager – Linsey Retcofsky
CAST in alphabetical order
Georgia Clinton – Maxine
Stormi Demerson – Tina/Candace
John Forkner – Todd/Charlie
Laurel Whitsett - Daughter
Reviewed Performance: 10/17/2013
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
- Benjamin Franklin
The ever-perfecting world of medical technology and drugs voids that statement as the nature of death and the duration of life are changing radically. A new play by Lucas Hnath, Death Tax questions those two “certainties” and leaves its audiences pondering their own beliefs. The play was amongst those at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Spring, 2012 and premiered in London’s Royal Court Theatre just this last summer. Amphibian will be producing the great titled play A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney in December, 2014.
Everything I read on Death Tax said the play is “a darkly comic play about death and taxes and how we live with both”. It’s much deeper than that, asking pointed questions on the moral and monetary cost of a life.
December 2010 and Maxine has been placed in a nursing home after becoming ill, and because of past actions believes her daughter is paying the nurse to “nudge” her along to death before a sizeable estate tax takes effect at the first of the upcoming year. The plot twists and turns again and again, shifting one’s take on each character and keeping the audience continuously off guard. When do sudden outbursts become truths and exaggerations become lies is the fine line heart of the story. Director Rene Moreno and Amphibian Stage Productions have produced an intelligent, thought-provoking, jarringly funny play full of moments that might hit a little too close to home, especially for those hitting the baby boomer years.
Amphibian’s new home’s interior is sleek, modern and minimal in design, so walking onto Bob Lavallee’s equally sleek, modern set felt a completely natural extension. Placed smack dab in the middle of their black box theatre space, the audience sits bleacher-style on either side of the playing area. Both ends are almost mirror-image recessed walls, like goal posts. One side is Maxine’s room painted a slightly nauseating light blue with matching end table and blanket. Her hospital bed is simplistic and the only other décor is an old box table radio and a box of tissues. Much as a proscenium curtain, a semi-circular pull curtain, hospital-style, opens and closes both the play and around Maxine’s room - minimal. On the other side, an aqua wall, a large, sleek black desk with brass name plate and mesh rolling chair denotes an office, and a headless Santa jar filled with candy canes sets the season. Two sleek sconces and a large abstract painting finish the look – again, minimal. Two large chrome and upholstered black vinyl benches are set midway, face to face, and represent a neutral zone of sorts for the narrative transitions or the nursing home’s visitor room. Low shag carpeting in industrial gray covers the stage from one end to the other, somewhat like a field’s grass or astro turf.
Lighting is generically even in tone and hue in both rooms with spot cans hung close and focused down or slightly angled. Designer Adam Chamberlin’s pièce de résistance comes in the rather large lighting box hung low from the grid and illuminating the middle section, its light softened with an opaque glass or acrylic cover. The fluorescent/LED blue-white light nicely represents the sterile atmosphere of the nursing home.
Background sounds designed by David Lanza are set on “a low bed”, as Director Rene Moreno described afterwards. Doctors and staff being paged over the nursing home PA, the ticking of a clock, the hiss of air from an oxygen machine – some I heard and some I thought I heard in a subliminal murmur. The radio plays Bach's O Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiringto both open and close the play.
Kathleen Culebro’s costuming choices are in line with the minimalist feel, using simple pieces for each of the four main and two minor characters. Maxine wears a turquoise bed jacket and then an ugly yellow flowered bed gown with those neck ties in the back. Her hair is upswept and disheveled. Tina represents all nursing home care attendees in maroon scrubs and white jogging shoes, her hair pulled back with a big clip. Nursing home administrator Todd is in suit pants, shirt and tie with white coat for some form of authority. Maxine’s daughter wears dull, muted clothes with jeans, top, black leatherette jacket and boots. Her hair is bluntly layered and uncombed. Minimal additions of jackets, letting hair down or removing glasses change two actors into other characters.
Death Tax is written in a series of five vignettes, each opening with narration by Tina, Maxine’s nurse. Playwright Hnath allows all four main characters their moment of release and the actors perform at least one good long monologue. And while the setting resembles a field game, it is staged and played like an intense chess match. During two or three vignettes, both Maxine and Todd lie or sit at opposite ends, clearly watching the action, invisibly making their moves in the darkness, playing the other characters against each other. And like a good chess game, some pieces move ahead and some fall.
Maxine believes she is the master of her situation, having craftily played her life while knocking down those who attempted to block her. Georgia Clinton plays a woman, once money powerful but now bed-ridden and losing hold on her own life choices. Not nearly the age of the character, Clinton’s vocal inflections and body/hand movements are precisely thought out to give Maxine the fragility needed for someone of her age and infirmity. I’d imagine it’s quite the challenge to enact your character while lying under covers but Clinton portrays this elderly woman wisely through her voice, her eyes, her always reaching and grasping hands, making Maxine both hated and to be pitied. Her last monologue is powerfully and emotionally wrenching, leaving a personal hurt in my heart for a family member; art imitating life indeed.
In a blatant indication of how the playwright wrote her, Laurel Whitsett’s character isn’t even distinguished with a name, being known merely as Daughter. Saddled with only that title in life, the character resists the responsibility and Whitsett plays her as if she held the world’s anguish in her hands. Nervous movements, heightened volume in her voice and a mix of seething hatred and guilt in her eyes, Whitsett portrays the character’s desperation and sense of entitlement of her mother’s wealth. Her monologue has all the effectiveness of Maxine’s and the similarities between mother and daughter are apparent in both their longing and their fear.
As nursing home administrator Todd, John Forkner personifies a nebbish man who has some authority but not enough to hold any real power. Todd envisions himself unrealistically and Forkner’s body language and quivering voice all reinforce that vision. The hilarity comes with his pathetic tirades and ineffectual pleading. Forkner has the ability to instantaneously change how we see Todd, leaving conflicting feelings of loathing and pity for this man.
If Maxine thought herself the master of her own situation, she had yet to meet rookie Tina, who Maxine suspects of working with Daughter against her. In one uncalculated, swift response, Tina begins a long road of deception and Stormi Demerson takes Tina down that road with both hands, playing her on several unabashed levels of manipulation and lies. Her transitions to an amusing, cheerful narrator before each vignette, and her rapid change in her body movement, stance and voice as Tina’s deception worsens reflect Demerson’s sharpened acting ability. Having the actress go back and forth between the two leaves the audience off balance, constantly shifting and melding the two characterizations, which keeps Tina even more a mystery. Tina comes from Haiti and Demerson nails the dialect, never once dropping it. Her early monologue leads the audience to believe they know who Tina is, but Demerson soon lets them know they haven’t the slightest clue.
Hnath brings up ideas of life lived by artificial means, living beyond your given time. Maxine snides, “As long as you can keep paying, there’s really no need to die”. And in probably the shortest director notes I’ve seen in a playbill, Moreno quotes Hebrews 9:17, “For a will takes effect at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive”. It goes on to say, “While he is still alive no one can use it to get any of those things he has promised them”. Death Tax collects many questions but hands out no real answers. What Amphibian Stage Productions does hand to its audiences, though, is a chance at intellectual discussion of the value we put on human life, and when theatre allows or forces thought, then can the possibility of change be far behind?
Amphibian Stage Productions
120 South Main St., Fort Worth, TX 76104
Runs through November 10th
Thursday – Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $30.00, $25.00 for seniors and $15.00 for students.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.amphibianproductions.org/.
You may also email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call their box office at 1-817-923-3012.