Hyde Park Theatre's Death Tax

This production of Lucas Hnath's play questions who really pays when the Reaper comes calling – and before

Lana Dieterich (l) and Web Jerome in Hyde Park Theatre's <i>Death Tax</i>
Lana Dieterich (l) and Web Jerome in Hyde Park Theatre's Death Tax (Photo by Leroy Sakowitz)

Lucas Hnath's play Death Tax begins with a nurse just doing her job and a patient who won't let her. Maxine (Lana Dieterich) is sick and expected to die within weeks. The rules concerning the taxes on inheritance change on January 1, and Maxine is convinced that her daughter (Sarah Chong Harmer) is paying nurse Tina (Web Jerome) to slowly kill her before then. The idea is that the daughter would inherit more money if her mother dies early than she would if Maxine lasts the year.

Leaving aside the fact that the cantankerous Maxine could just change her will or establish a trust to avoid the tax if she actually wanted to stick it to her child, Tina's routine check-ins with Maxine turn suddenly messy. Tina has plenty of problems of her own, too: She has a custody battle waiting for her back home in Haiti if she can just raise the money to fight it. Maxine offers to pay her way there if Tina will keep her alive until January 1. That this sort of exchange is entirely illegal is not Maxine's concern.

Under Artistic Director Ken Webster's direction, Hyde Park Theatre has found a perfectly sized play for its space and its people and has matched it to a great cast. Dieterich shows all the ways that a bitter woman like Maxine is complicated and wounded in her own right. As Tina, Jerome navigates the monologues of Hnath's work capably, and her Haitian accent lands. Especially revealing are the scenes between Tina and her supervisor Todd (Chase Brewer), the kind of nice-on-the-surface loser who lashes out viciously in the face of rejection, in total "Cat Person" style.

Death Tax features five scenes. The first four appear to be telling one sort of story, but the fifth provides the ending to a very different story. It's all very well written, with the kinds of insightful and sensitive character portrayals that are a hallmark of Hnath's writing (The Christians; A Doll's House Part 2). It's only like someone maybe got confused at the photocopier or something and put another play's ending on the one you were just watching. It has some of the same characters, but as expressed in this production, the themes take a sudden turn in another direction.

If a person isn't slowed too much by this speed bump of a transition in the final scene, then what remains on either side of it is thought-provoking and interesting. Hnath's gift to American theatre is his ability to humanize the sorts of people who are referred to only broadly in public conversations around complicated social exchanges: immigrant nurses, mothers on food stamps, people who are abandoned and dying. Death Tax eventually settles around questions of what "quality of life" actually means when genuine kindness is in short supply.

Death Tax

Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 512/479-7529
Through July 27
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Hyde Park Theatre
Hyde Park Theatre's <i>A Doll's House, Part 2</i>
Hyde Park Theatre's A Doll's House, Part 2
Like its source material, this sequel from another mother entertains and inspires on its own terms

Bob Abelman, March 8, 2019

Hyde Park Theatre's <i>Confessions of a Mexpatriate</i>
Hyde Park Theatre's Confessions of a Mexpatriate
Raul Garza's solo show tells us that finding your true self in another country isn't easy

Robert Faires, Sept. 28, 2018

More Arts Reviews
Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in <i>Paper Ghosts</i>
Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in Paper Ghosts
As well as being a riveting psychological thriller, this tale of a road trip across Texas with a serial killer shows the state in an intimate light

Elizabeth Cobbe, July 19, 2019

<i>Houston Noir</i> Anthology Explores H-Town Badness
Houston Noir Anthology Explores H-Town Badness
H-Town badness gets the Akashic rundown in a criminally good anthology

Wayne Alan Brenner, July 19, 2019

More by Elizabeth Cobbe
Penfold Theatre's <i>Henry V</i>
Penfold Theatre's Henry V
This production in the park makes Shakespeare's epic history into a satisfying show for a summer evening

June 14, 2019

Review: <i>Hamilton</i>
Review: Hamilton
This national touring production doesn't throw away its shot

May 30, 2019


Hyde Park Theatre, Ken Webster, Lana Dieterich, Sarah Chong Harmer, Web Jerome, Chase Brewer, Lucas Hnath, Death Tax

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle