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Lookingglass Theatre Company. By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Heidi Stillman. With Deanna Dunagan, J. Nicole Brooks, Raymond Fox, Louise Lamson. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
It may have been Ben Franklin or Daniel Defoe who coined the phrase about life's two certainties, the ones that constitute the title of Lucas Hnath's twisty, engaging 2012 work. But the coinage Hnath alludes to is that of political wordsmith Frank Luntz, who informally but rather effectively renamed the estate tax for the politicians and adherents of the Republican Party a decade ago.
It's that "death tax" that concerns Maxine (Deanna Dunagan), a wealthy widow in a nursing home who's been told by the doctors (and she feels it, too) that she is "in decline"—on her way to dying. In the play's opening scene, though, Maxine accuses a nurse, Tina (J. Nicole Brooks), of nudging her toward a premature passing at the behest of her estranged daughter, who stands to inherit a much larger fortune if Maxine dies before a new estate tax kicks in on January 1.
Tina, bewildered, denies it, but Maxine is certain she's got her woman. Whatever her daughter is paying, Maxine says, she'll pay more if Tina can keep her alive until the new year. And it turns out Tina, who can't convince Maxine she's not killing her anyway, has a seemingly very moral reason for needing the extra cash.
Thus begins a continually surprising, morbidly funny study in situational ethics that includes Tina drawing Todd (Raymond Fox), a doormat of a nursing-home administrator, into her scheme, and a highly pitched visit from Maxine's daughter (Louise Lamson, making a meal of her single scene). Eventually it becomes a sort-of critique of the way we manage health care in the U.S., and our desperate compulsion to prolong life, no matter its quality. (That the play premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New Plays would seem to scuttle any possible conspiracy theories that the sponsoring insurance company held sway over that fest's programming.)
Heidi Stillman's staging is spare and spry, but unafraid to hold an uncomfortable moment long enough to make it more uncomfortable. John Musial's set consists of a simply demarcated square, above which the massive lighting rig containing Christine A. Binder's instruments descends lower and lower with each scene change like Poe's pendulum.
It's the Tony winner, Dunagan, who's on the poster, and she's admittedly delightful as this spiteful old witch, spouting proclamations like, "People who have money are preserved." You may find yourself wishing, though, that Hnath's fable offered us a little more about how Maxine got to be this way. But it's Brooks who really shoulders the play, remaining onstage nearly for its entirety in mostly two-person scenes. Her guarded, unshowy embodiment of a woman of complicated motivations is what keeps this production breathing.