Dividing The Estate
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 26, 2007
There's no such thing as a sure thing in the theatre, but a new comedy by Horton Foote starring Elizabeth Ashley, Penny Fuller, Arthur French, Lynda Gravatt, Gerald McRaney, and Foote's daughter Hallie as a pack of eccentric Southerners would seem to come as close to one as possible. Dividing the Estate, which boasts these credentials plus a crackerjack supporting cast and design team, all under the baton of frequent Foote interpreter Michael Wilson, does not let us down: it's a riot of outsized performances and graceful language that keeps us laughing and guessing from start to finish.
Subtle, it's not: the title tells us what it's about (and gets repeated, by one character or another, umpteen times during the proceedings). Stella Gordon is the 85-year-old matriarch of a large estate in Harrison, Texas (the fictional Gulf Coast town, not far from Houston, where many of Foote's plays take place). She lives with her elder daughter, Lucille; Lucille's son, Son, who runs the family's farming business; and an old black retainer, Doug, who at 91 has been with the family since Stella was five. Stella's son Lewis also lives here; her youngest child, Mary Jo, lives in Houston with her husband Bob and two twentysomething daughters. It's 1987, the year that oil prices plummeted from $38 to $11/barrel, crippling much of the economy in this part of Texas, and the Gordons are feeling the effects.
Which is why pretty much all of them can't stop talking—pro or con—about dividing the estate. Mary Jo leads the charge; her husband is in financial difficulty and she's tired of having to borrow against her future inheritance (she's already $300,000 in the hole). Lewis needs money, too, because he squanders his allowance on boozing and gambling on a regular basis. Only Lucille and Son (both on salary; Stella runs the tightest of ships) are against dividing the estate—and of course Stella is opposed to such an occurrence ever happening, even after she's dead.
It's the setup for outsized tragedy and comedy, and both come to this family (and to us) in gigantic doses. The play feels light in Act One, as if to prepare us for a more serious conclusion; but Foote surprises us with merry black comedy instead that just rolls on and on. The characterizations and the dialogue are so full and vivid that the mercenary quality of pretty much everybody on hand is tempered by Foote's good humor.
This is, first and foremost, a showcase for its formidable cast. Ashley, unafraid to try to make herself look as commandingly octogenarian as possible, is terrific as Stella, controlling her brood with purse strings that she's determined never to cut. As her children, Penny Fuller (Lucille), Gerald McRaney (Lewis), and Hallie Foote (Mary Jo) are all in top form: with Ashley, they create such a convincing family dynamic that we quickly understand the relationships and rivalries among them. Foote, master of the Eternally Disappointed Southern Lady, is especially brilliant here (and indeed her father has given her some of the choicest bits in the play's hilarious final scene).
Devon Abner, who was outstanding in the recent revival of Foote's A Trip to Bountiful, is similarly fine here as the yet-unspoiled Son. Maggie Lacey is quite effective as Pauline, the schoolteacher he hopes to marry, embodying both her outsider status and her (frankly annoying) goody-two-shoes nature. James DeMarse is splendid as booming, bombastic Bob, and Jenny Dare Paulin and (especially) Nicole Lowrance are dead-on as Bob and Mary Jo's spoiled daughters Emily and Sissy. (Kudos to costume designer David C. Woolard, who has dressed these two so on-the-money that their first appearances, in gaudy, trendy, late-'80s fashion, qualifies as one of the show's great sight gags.)
Lynda Gravatt and Keiana Richard as two long-suffering servants make strong impressions in very small roles. And Arthur French, as the Firs-like Doug, is hilarious and delightful, threatening more than once to steal the show right out from under his equally expert co-stars.
It is, in short, a dream cast—the kind that we seldom get to see on a single stage, and that therefore we must savor when such an opportunity arises. Hearing them do more than justice to Foote's singular Southern language is icing on the cake, if you'll permit that cliche. Here's a sample:
MARY JO: Who were papa's pall bearers?
LUCILLE: Mr. Scott Jordan, Elmo Douglas.
MARY JO: Mr. Leslie Crockett.
LUCILLE: Yes. All of them are dead now.
MARY JO: All of them?
LUCILLE: Every last one of them.
MARY JO: Mr. Leslie Crockett?
LUCILLE: Oh, yes. He's been dead a number of years.
Primary Stages is truly to be congratulated (and thanked) for giving New Yorkers such a charmer of a theatrical gift. Dividing the Estate is another prize in what's shaping up to be quite a bounteous season.