Dividing the Estate
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 23, 2008
What a difference a year makes! Last season, when Dividing the Estate premiered off-Broadway at Primary Stages, the program carefully informed us that the play took place in 1987, when the collapse of land and oil prices was seriously depressing the economy of Houston and East Texas. Now, though, for Lincoln Center Theater's Broadway presentation of Dividing the Estate, no such note in necessary. The economic backdrop of the story—that the three children of a wealthy Southern matriarch all are cash-poor, forced to borrow against the dwindling value of their shares of their momma's large estate—rings all too true. Playwright Horton Foote can add prescience to the list of virtues he brings to this charming comedy of his.
Stella Gordon, played with a wicked sense of entitlement and ingenuousness by Elizabeth Ashley, is past 80. She reigns supreme over her household and her estate, which consists of a large and possibly anachronistic farm here in Harrison, Texas (the fictional setting of many of Foote's plays) and a big old mansion, beautifully realized by set designer Jeff Cowie. Stella lives with her elder daughter Lucille, and Lucille's son (who is called "Son"); Son runs the estate and Lucille manages the house. Stella's son, Lewis, also resides here; he's a drinker and a gambler who has never held a steady job. They have three African American servants—Mildred, the cook; Cathleen, a young woman who works here while attending junior college; and Doug, the family's 90-year-old retainer, who insists on doing his chores despite his shaky hands and his propensity for napping whenever and wherever he happens to be.
On this particular day, Stella's younger daughter and her family are coming to visit. Mary Jo is married to a realtor named Bob whose business has fallen on lean times, and when she arrives with their two daughters Emily and Sissie she is intent on bringing up the issue that she always brings up—the immediate need to divide the estate, so that Mary Jo can convert it to much-needed cash and stop taking loans. Stella, of course, won't hear of it. She vows deep attachment to it, but we sense that her control over her brood via tight purse strings may be the real reason for her intransigence.
The family dinner this day is stormy. Mary Jo throws a bit of a tantrum; Son, meanwhile, who has brought his new fiancee Pauline to meet the family, is embarrassed by his aunt and has a little tantrum of his own. And then in the thick of all this, Doug and Cathleen have a row.
The thing that's probably not clear from the foregoing is that all of this is pulled off by Foote with sly, genteel (and gentle) humor: Dividing the Estate is a comedy, its dour subject matter notwithstanding. Foote brings Act I to a close with a time-honored stage device that temporarily feels serious, but in the play's second half, he piles on the laughs even as he drives the Gordon family further and further into economic despair. In some ways, he's written the timeliest comedy possible, though stylistically it feels like a vestige of a long-ago age, the one Stella and Doug grew up in, when ladies always wore hats and gloves and one lifted one's spirits with a good old-fashioned hymn like "Rock of Ages."
Ultimately it's the characters that Foote has created who propel the play, and as portrayed by an exemplary cast (almost entirely the same as the one we saw last season at Primary Stages), they're a grasping, squabbling bunch to cherish. Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter, has the choicest role as Mary Jo, a woman who can maintain focus on herself and her monetary problems no matter what else might be happening around her. Foote speaks her father's lines with a poetic majesty and authority and mines every one of them for laughter. Penny Fuller and Gerald McRaney are just as accomplished as Mary Jo's siblings, though their roles give them fewer opportunities to take centerstage; McRaney is unexpectedly touching in key moments here, though, while Fuller has at least one great scene holding her own with Foote near the play's end. James DeMarse is splendidly sympathetic as Mary Jo's glad-handing husband Bob.
Towering over the middle generation of Gordons are the two elderly members of the household: Ashley's Stella, devious and spoiled, and Arthur French's Doug, earnest and accommodating but oh so weary and muddled.
The youngest members of the extended family generally have the least to do, although Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance as Mary Jo's essentially interchangeable daughters earn some chuckles. Maggie Lacey gets Son's striving schoolteacher girlfriend Pauline exactly right. Devon Abner mostly plays it stolid and serious as Son, but the show's single biggest laugh falls to him. (I will leave it to you discover what he says that earns such sustained delight from the audience.)
Rounding out the company are Pat Bowie and Keiana Richard as the other two servants, and Virginia Kull in what amounts to a surprise cameo at the very end of the play. Kull is a hoot.
Michael Wilson's staging feels a bit less urgent than it did last year; how much of this, I wondered, is due to the larger distances the actors now must traverse on the Booth Theatre stage? Foote has cut his play some since last year, too, excising at least one exchange that I enjoyed so well that I quoted it in my review. David C. Woolard's appropriate costumes (particularly a great pair of dresses for Stella) are exemplary, as are the rest of the production elements.
In the year since we first saw Dividing the Estate in New York City, our lives have been invaded not only by economic hard times but by a feuding family from the Heartland who took our town by storm; the denizens of August: Osage County make Foote's gracious Texans feel even more old-fashioned than they already are. No matter: see Dividing the Estate for its elegant and witty dialogue and its superlative ensemble. Even a family facing financial ruin can make good company these days.