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A CurtainUp Review
Dividing the Estate
By Elyse Sommer
The Original Review
The Gordon siblings may be sufficiently divided in how to deal with the cash flow crisis in the family estate for each to need a lawyer, but this isn't Dallas or The Little Foxes. None of the people who populate Horton Foote's plays, are villains, and the Gordons of Dividing the Estate, now being given a loving and lavish production at Primary Stages, are no exception. They're self-absorbed, narrow-minded, too focused on their limited universe, but they're not vicious.
The story of how the perilous state of the Gordons' enormous fortune came about and how death brings their dickerings about the estate to a climax, once again takes us to Harrison, Texas. This fictionalized version of Wharton, Texas, Horton Foote's real home town, has served as the dramatic landscape for the some sixty plays of the 91-year-old playwright's own Chekhovian human comedy.
This chapter of Foote's Harrison oeuvre takes place in 1987 which is actually when it was written. In case you don't recall, that was the year when plummeting oil prices and land values culminated in the Savings and Loan Crisis that hit Texas particularly hard. The twenty years it has taken for the play's debut at the McCarter Theater in Princeton to be followed by its current New York premiere have not dated it. On the contrary, with people all over the country sinking into the quicksand of an escalating mortgage crisis, Dividing the Estate could be chillingly timely. But Mr. Foote is not a financial journalist and all the talk about foreclosures, estate taxes and interest rates works to leaven this dire situation with gentle humor that stems from watching these financial naifs grapple with the realization that the estate they're arguing about is no longer the cash cow it once was. Thus, the only thing old-fashioned about this production is its generously sized cast, a baker's dozen in all, and the sort of beautifully detailed sets mostly seen these days in Broadway revivals by larger nonprofit organizations like the Roundabout or Lincoln Center.
The cast features some outstanding actors, especially the three playing the immediate heirs to the Gordon estate: Penny Fuller as the oldest Gordon sister Lucille; Gerald McRaney as the alcoholic brother Lewis; and Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter as Mary Jo, the youngest sister. Lucille is dead set against dividing the estate. Lewis, tired of having to ask his nephew (Lucille's son who has been managing the estate since he quit college, played with impeccable understatement by Devon Abner) and in order to extricate himself from a ticklish personal situation, is pro-division. Mary Jo, who's left Harrison for a more high-flying life in Houston is gung-ho for whatever will enable her and her air-headed daughters Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance) and luftmensch husband Bob (James DeMarse) to continue their extravagant lifestyle. Good as Fuller and McRaney are as stay-at-home sister and brother, Hallie Foote just about steals the whole show. Part of this can be attributed to her long experience as her father's chief interpreter, part to the fact that he has here gifted her with the liveliest and funny role. In any case, she's invested the role with an irony and true-blue twang that would make it almost impossible for anyone else to step into her shoes.
Elizabeth Ashley looks absolutely beautiful as the white-haired matriarch who has controlled her children by keeping a tight reign on the purse strings, yet spoiling them with too many loans that drain the estate she is determined to keep intact even after her death. However, though Ashley's smoky voice is hypnotically melodic, her acceent is a bit more reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and Maggie the Cat than Horton Foote.
Of the smaller parts the most endearing character is Doug the ancient family retainer played with comic zest by Arthur French. The most interesting is Pauline, the school teacher to whom Son has just gotten engaged. Unlike his first wife who found his family impossible to live with, Pauline is as intrigued by his family as by the Korean and Taiwanese students in her classroom. The example of these new Texans' life styles make her view even the possibility of everyone having to live under one roof as a challenge. Played with wide-eyed cheeriness by Maggie Lacey, this family outsider poised to become an insider,adds to the play's timeliness and helps to keep things funny despite two funerals.
Director Michael Wilson, who's previously helmed The Day Emily Married, The Carpetbagger's Children, The Trip to Bountiful, once again proves his affinity for the nuances of Mr. Foote's work. He allows the causes and events that will change these lives forever to unfold at a deliberately slow Southern tempo, through character revealing snippets of gossip and family recollections.
While the relatively small playing area of the 59E59 Theater necessitated a scaled down living room, dining room and hallway of the Gordon house, set designer Jeff Cowie has nevertheless created an aura of spaciousness and fine living. The mind boggling array of prints on wall paper, rugs, upholstery, curtains and accessories is taken to yet another level by David C. Woolard's costumes (particularly the dresses in which Joanne's daughters make their entry). Rui Rita's lighting of a painting of what the house must have looked like before the surrounding homes gave way to commercial enterprises, makes for an elegant visual pause between scenes.
There's something to be said for the gritty, dysfunctional family dramas by some of our emerging young dramatists. But there's still a great deal of pleasure to be had from a beautifully staged and acted kitchen sink comedy like this excerpt from the American experience as witnessed by our oldest and most prolific writer for stage, screen and television.
You can learn more about Horton Foote's life, career and links to plays reviewed at Curtainup by reading Curtainup's Horton Foote backgrounder.
©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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