Treasures among the trash in "Death Tax"

March 22, 2012

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Before sitting down to work, playwright Lucas Hnath often prepares by taking on The New York Times’ crossword puzzle. Hnath said he particularly depended on this strategy when writing Death Tax, which begins its premiere run tonight in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.

“It tuned my brain in a way,” he said recently during a day off from rehearsals at the theater. “I like suspenseful stories. I like to try to write plays that are page turners.”

Death Tax could be his most suspenseful work yet, he added.

The play is about a wealthy woman, Maxine, who is convinced that her estranged daughter wants to speed her death to get her inheritance. She also believes that Maxine’s nurse, Tina, is in on the plot and bribes her. Tina, who has an ill child in Haiti, believes Maxine is delusional, but she takes the money anyway.

The play diverges from Hnath’s frequent habit of writing about celebrities or iconic figures. The first work he had produced at Actors Theatre was The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith in 2010, which was about business magnate J. Howard Marshall trying to persuade Smith to marry him. It was staged in the theater’s production of 10-minute plays.

Hnath also has written Isaac’s Eye, about Isaac Newton trying to decipher light; Hillary and Clinton, an imagined evening during the 2008 presidential campaign; and A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, which explores the rumor that the animator was cryogenically frozen (he was cremated).

Hnath has a seven-year residency to create new work as part of the resident playwright company of New Dramatists in New York last June.

“I’m always interested in the possibility of taking something that’s sort of tabloid trash and seeing if there is some jewel inside that elevates it or makes the subject mythic in some way,” he said.

He credited ATL literary department manager Sarah Lunnie for helping him develop Death Tax. He said he started sending her more of his work to get her feedback after the theater produced The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith.

“What was exciting about hearing last year that the play was going to be in the Humana Festival was that it would be the chance to work with her,” he said

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