Arthur French (foreground) and (l. to r.) Elizabeth Ashley, Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote, and Gerald McRaney in Horton Footes Dividing the Estate.
By Scott Harrah
It would be easy to compare Horton Footes Dividing the Estate to Broadways other current family drama, August: Osage County. Both plays are about big, bickering families ruled by a matriarch. However, while Osage County was a sprawling tragic epic, Dividing the Estate is a far more humorous look at family dysfunction.
Greed is also a major theme that sets the Texas clan in Dividing the Estate apart from the angst-ridden Oklahomans in August: Osage County. The title, Dividing the Estate, fairly sums up the storyline of 92-year-old playwright Horton Footes tale of the Gordons, an old-money Gulf Coast family in Harrison, Texas struggling to survive on their cotton plantation in a rough economy circa 1987 as the avaricious children of Stella (played by brilliant stage veteran Elizabeth Ashley) scheme and plot ways to get their share of her fortune.
The play, mounted last year in a critically acclaimed run off-Broadway at Primary Stages, is Southern Gothic with a lighthearted twist. Its comic elements probably owe more to down-home TV sitcoms than the dark family machinations of Tennessee Williams. The plantation-dwelling Gordons, although Southern, dont have anywhere near the problems of, say, the Politt family in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. With Dividing the Estate, the prolific playwright Horton Footebest known for such classics as The Trip to Bountiful and The Man from Atlanta, and Oscar-winning screenplays for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird has written his most blithesome story to date.
Footes latest is more of character study and a comedy-drama of Southern manners than a story with an intricately crafted plot. Stellas children have never worked, and all live off her dwindling assets. Theres Lewis (Gerald McRaney), the bachelor with a gambling problem and a penchant for teenage girls; housewife Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) and daughters Sissy (Nicole Lowrance) and Emily (Jenna Dare Paulin); and widow Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Son (Devon Abner) who oversees the estate and family business. The family also employs devoted servants such as 92-year-old Doug (Arthur French), housekeeper Mildred (Pat Bowie) and young Cathleen (Keiana Richard).
Much of the story revolves around the Gordon children fighting over dividing the estate before Stella dies, and how to make the failing family plantation profitable again. The family is gathered together for the first time in five months, and sparks fly as everyone gets on each others nerves. There are, of course, numerous subplots to complicate matters, and lots of gossipy tales about small-town shenanigans. Jeff Cowies gorgeous set and David C. Woolards costumes help bring upper-class Texas to glorious life.
Dividing the Estate does have its flaws. For example, act two drags at certain points, and a good 20 minutes could easily be cut. If anything, the show is mostly worth seeing due to Footes crisp dialogue and extraordinary performances by Elizabeth Ashley as the wisecracking Stella, Arthur French as the cantankerous yet vulnerable Doug, and Gerald McRaney as Stellas troubled son, Lewis.
As loathsome as some of the Gordon children might seem, with their eyes fixated on Stellas money, Horton Foote never portrays them as unsympathetic characters, and Michael Wilson directs the stellar cast with wonderful dramatic timing and precision. Theres a lot of truth and realism in Dividing the Estate, and it effectively exposes the shortcomings of the American family with heart.