Benjamin Franklin’s pair of life certainties spark Lucas Hnath’s “Death Tax” into existence on stage, showing there’s an unmentioned assurance to join the proverbial pair. Unfortunately that other certainty would be “loquacious young playwrights.”
The story stems from a frail dowager’s belief her daughter has designed a hastened demise to land a larger inheritance. The older woman shovels funds to her nursing home attendant to thwart any schemes and the tale of mirrored perspectives is afoot.
Its only flaw lies not in execution — the play is well worth the time — but in a few stretches that ask characters to stop actual conversation while one climbs a soapbox. It’s not abundant, just present.
Hnath’s 2012 work is the latest offering from Mobile’s most adventurous and fresh-faced theatrical group, Makalani Theatre Ensemble. It’s the third production from the unit founded by then-University of South Alabama drama instructors Keone Fuqua and Christopher Peck.
Each year has revealed growth. Their 2014 production of “Brilliant Traces” was a two-person affair set in a snowbound wilderness cabin.
In 2015, they staged the more layered “Art.” The three-man work revealed the shifting dynamics of friendship over time as characters roamed a chic urban apartment.
This new play increases the cast by one yet again, and splays out the interpersonal dynamics and lengthens the time span immensely. Rather than a pair or trio of acts, the story unfolds over five scenes.
The black-box layout has changed from the in-the-round of previous years to a thrust stage set-up, but it still seats about 50. The stage dressing is minimal: a hospital bed on one side with a desk and chair on the other.
“Death Tax” will run this weekend only, June 2-5. Evening curtain is at 8 p.m. and the Sunday matinee is at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $15, $13 for students and group rates are available. For more information, call 615-440-3767 or email MakalaniTheatreEnsemble@gmail.com. You can also find their Facebook page and follow a link for online sales.
The technical rehearsal Artifice viewed ran closer to the two-hour mark but that was likely due to frequent calls for lines from some of the cast. Hey, we said it was wordy in a couple of spots. Director Christopher Peck wants it pared to a roughly 90-minute run time by premiere.
As it opens, the bed is occupied by Maxine, played by Jean Galloway — yes, the same Jean Galloway who headed the Mobile Arts Council for nearly two decades. As Ravyn Otis buzzes about the room as Maxine’s Haitian-born nurse, Tina, the patient spins a yarn about a greedy daughter and a change in estate tax allotments that takes place during the new year. She is convinced her offspring has an evil nature and has recruited Tina to her cause.
“I say murder, they say dementia,” Maxine complained.
Tina mentions her own rocky background, a son left behind in the islands and her desire to liberate him. After Maxine offers Tina nearly a quarter-million dollars to keep her alive past New Year’s Eve, the nurse’s ethics take a backseat.
As the play continues, Tina interacts with a supervisor, Todd, who obviously bears unrequited feelings for her following a long-past coupling. Played by Howard Johnson, the boss dances on the thin ground between sexual harassment and complicity in a scheme certainly unethical if not outright illegal.
When Tina finally meets with the daughter, played by Ashley Robertson, all previous dynamics disappear. Roles and motivations reverse, complications arise.
So does the dramatic quality. The third scene was easily the apex of this night’s version, as the chemistry between Otis and Robertson seemed natural and innate.
Otis was strong and consistent but this scene stood out. Perhaps it helped that no calls for lines interceded but it was hard to miss Robertson’s ability to truly inhabit her character and the nuance she exhibited from beginning to end. Nothing seemed self-conscious and both actors’ work in this scene was one of the better things Artifice has witnessed on a Mobile stage.
For Johnson, the fourth scene involving a raw confrontation between Todd and Tina was his high point. Even through called lines, his emotional focus was unfailing. It seemed the more intense Todd grew, the better Johnson became.
The last scene was easily Galloway’s best. She lifted the first portion onto her shoulders and carried it with comedic aplomb in welcome relief against much of the earlier drama. Peck said he relished that aspect as well.
Hnath’s play is often described as a black comedy, though a good deal of that aspect was underplayed here. Clips from other versions show the subtle ways tiny variations of the same script with timing and mannerism can imbue more laughs, though some of it was bypassed here. Or perhaps it just escaped this viewer.
Ultimately the heft of the work lies in the subtlety of perspective. Lines are launched in one scene, then echoed in another by a new character with entirely different effect and meaning. Our perceptions of characters are shattered and rebuilt scene to scene.
And we see bits of ourselves in all of them. Forlorn lovers, carriers of regret, misunderstood children, parents petrified by abandonment and irrelevance, overwhelmed relatives, aging participants in life’s absurdities, afraid to see it slip away no matter how besieged we feel.
We’re all there in ways that feel haunting. In one way or another, Maxine awaits us all.