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Connecticut Theater

"Dividing the Estate"
Hartford Stage, Hartford

“Dividing the Estate” is a loving tribute to playwright Horton Foote, whose recent death ended a long, productive career. Originally staged both off- and on-Broadway, this magnificent Foote play comes to Michael Wilson’s own Hartford Stage under Wilson’s  direction.

“Dividing the Estate” is not only a tribute, but an event in its own right. (The production has already won Tony nominations for the play and for the featured actress—Foote’s daughter Hallie.) Combining both play and production flawlessly as it digs into the angst of one family, “Dividing the Estate” is a moment in theater history. At the same time, it is endlessly diverting, entertaining.

The play could be one more look at a dysfunctional clan, but Foote has such an unerring voice that “Dividing the Estate” goes beyond soap opera calibre. Setting the scene in his native East Texas (the imaginary town of Harrison), Foote explores family relationships in depth.

This so-called upper-class family still owns a spacious home and acres of farmland, presided over by the fierce matriarch. Family members grapple over their legacy, some fight desperately for funds while others hold precariously to jobs within the estate. Some would benefit by “dividing the estate,” while others gain by the status quo. And then there are the devoted black retainers, much in evidence and apparently happy to serve their white masters.

Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) comes home to urge the estate’s division (as she and her husband are deeply in debt). Without a piece of the estate, she cannot give her daughter a proper country-club wedding or her other daughter a European trip! But her sister Lucille (Penny Fuller) and nephew Son (Devon Abner), with their substantial salaries, benefit most in keeping the estate intact.

In short, Foote paints a picture which still retains values—good and bad--of the old South. Class, caste, race and the niceties of upper-class living prevail, even while greed runs rampant. (One is reminded of Lillian Hellmann’s “The Little Foxes” and Alfred Uhry’s “Last Night at Ballyhoo”—where striving for class status also vied with materialism.)

Wilson’s cast works beautifully in ensemble, with Hallie Foote and Lois Smith (as the matriarch) in the leads. Foote creates a near-hysteric Mary Jo, who is suspicious and greedy and outspoken, all rolled into one—a portrayal both comic and poignant in equal measure. And Smith as the domineering head of the clan takes command of her role and the stage. Of particular note are Alfred French, who plays the old black servant, devoted to the end, and Gerald McRaney as the gambling, alcoholic son.

In all, an opportunity to see a memorable Horton Foote drama, handled with great sensitivity and skill.

-- Irene Backalenick
June 2, 2009

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