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After Riveting First Hour, Death Tax Loses the Plot

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What would you do for $200,000? Would you be willing to bilk a delusional rich woman out of part of her fortune?

That's the hook of Lucas Hnath's Death Tax at Pillsbury House Theatre. The play delves into the story of a nurse willing to lie to everyone — including herself — to get the promised money, creating a theatrical commentary about the way we treat people at the end of their lives.

Tina, the nurse willing to violate all ethics, is a fascinating character study of a woman buried so deep in lies that she's come to believe them herself.

The rich woman is Maxine, who is convinced that her estranged daughter is paying Tina to off her. The daughter is planning foul play to get the inheritance — and it has to happen soon to take advantage of favorable tax laws.

So Maxine makes Tina a counteroffer: Keep her alive until the first of the year, and Tina will receive $200,000.

Is Maxine delusional? Once we meet the daughter and see her paycheck-to-paycheck life, it seems like she is. The daughter not only lacks the resources to pay off Tina, but is desperate to reconnect with her mother with no financial strings attached.

Still, after some hesitation, Tina agrees to take the money, dreaming of reuniting with her son, who has been taken back to Haiti by his father.

She talks a lot about leaving her tough-girl past behind, but she manipulates everyone — Maxine, her boss, and the daughter — to not only keep the scheme afloat, but to convince herself that what she is doing is right.

No one bears the brunt of this more than Tina's boss, Todd. He's a cardigan-wearing dweeb in a bad-guy leather jacket. He's also desperately in love with Tina, sharing in the scheme under the false hope that a full-time relationship will bloom when the money is paid.

Regina Marie Williams plays a multilayered Tina. She never loses the friendly, somewhat frazzled tone of the opening scene, when she first tries to reason with Maxine, then acquiesces at the elder lady's insistence.

Williams keeps our sympathy, even as we question Tina's story. Has she reformed her ways and seeking only to rescue her son from Haiti? Or is her son in a safer place away from his mother?

Then Death Tax jumps forward 20 years. Tina is gone.

We are left with a much older Maxine, who is clearly just as manipulative as the nurse. Wendy Lehr is terrific as always. Even though Maxine never moves from her bed, she controls everyone around her.

Hnath has a lot to say about the way we treat the elderly and the harsh realities of a profit-based health care system, but without Tina the last third of the show loses momentum at a time a play should be ramping up its intensity.

It's a sad way to end what had been such a terrific show. It doesn't help that Williams is on stage for this, but playing a far less interesting social worker. Hnath had two stories to tell in Death Tax. The first's fascinating central character mostly makes up for the second, though the overall experience may leave you as confused as Maxine.

IF YOU GO:

Death Tax Through April 4 Pillsbury House Theatre 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis $25 (pick your price ticketing) For tickets and more information, call 612-825-0459.