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Death Tax

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Death Tax

By Lucas Hnath

Directed by Heidi Stillman

At Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago

Preposterous premise hurts look at aging and health care

Lucas Hnath is a ‘hot’ item here in Chicago with Issac’s Eye playing at Writers Theatre and now Death Tax playing at Lookingglass Theatre. Hnath is a new breed of playwright who breaks with traditional writing techniques in a ‘hipster’ contemporary style. With Isaac’s Eye, he list facts in writing on the theatre’s walls. In Death Tax, he stretches our conventions about death, health care and nurses.

Death Tax finds senior Maxine (the ferocious Deanna Dunagan) bed-ridden in a nursing home. She believes that her daughter (Louise Lamson) is plotting to kill her to get her money. That is a common  assertion from those suffering from dementia but here playwright Lucas Hnath wants us to accept that as a possibility. Maxine’s health is deteriorating and she believes that her daughter has paid off  Nurse Tina (J. Nicole Brooks)  to “nudge” her into death before the year’s end for tax purposes. To center that Maxine offers Nurse Tina a weekly check with a large cash bonus if Maxine is alive on January 1- thus defeating her daughter’s plan.

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This comic drama layers the premise that money keeps seniors alive as nursing homes use modern equipment as long as patients can pay with helpful “nudges” from a cash-strapped nurse. This is insulting to both nursing homes and, especially nurses. Tina is a dedicated nurse but when she has an immigration problem that finds her son stranded in Haiti, she takes Maxine’s money. To add to this incredulous plot, her lover and supervisor, Todd, (Raymond Fox) gets involved in the pay-off plot.

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As this 75 minute work move along, time move up twenty years with Maxine still in the nursing home alive and nasty as ever. A social worker tells her that since he money has run out, she must leave the facility. She believes that will lead to her death. The social worker (J. Nicole Brooks) gets Maxine’s  grandson (also played by Raymond Fox) involved. Maxine want to live with the grandson or have him pay to stay in the nursing home. But the grandson is still torn between his family’s needs and the long feud between   his mother and his grandmother.

We witness a common dilemma, who is responsible for seniors when they need help? The daughter or the grandson or who? Again, since the character of  Maxine  is so nasty, it is reasonable to see how the grandson diplomatically withdraws from helping Maxine.  Death Tax suffers from a too extreme plot that necessitates us believing that nurses are easily corrupted and that nursing home can keep an unhealthy patient alive for more than twenty years. Also, no one seems willing to consider that Maxine’s paranoia  is a delusion. Since Maxine is so nasty,I couldn’t care what happens to her. Death Tax is simply to contrived. The performances were terrific, especially from Deanna Dunagan and J. Nicole Brooks.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: September 12, 2014

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Death Tax page at

At Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, Chicago, IL, call 312-337-0665,, tickets $40- $65, Tuesdays thur Fridays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Thursdays at 3 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3 & 7;30 pm, running time is 75inutes without intermission, through October 12, 2014

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