New York City Theater
"Dividing the Estate"
Turning on a dime from comedy to tragedy to some combination of both, Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” is nothing less than a completely satisfying, must-see piece of theater. Beautifully written, acted and directed, it leaves audiences with aches in their hearts and laughter in their throats. Sometimes, in fact, the tears and laughs come simultaneously.
The play stamps each of its 13 characters into a fully realized person. Their cranks and gears reveal not only what they want right now but what they’ve always wanted, what they’ve given up and what they’d like in the future. Although set against the specifics of a Texas town in 1987, the play is, nevertheless, a microcosm of societies in disarray and the flawed human beings – loving and loutish, generous and gossipy – that inhabit them. Foote savors the flavor that pinpoints these frustrated, less-than-giant characters putting on a good front on their decaying homestead. Run by Stella, a no-nonsense matriarch, the place maintains its bourgeois semblance, replete with black servants and exacting rituals. (Echoes of Tennessee Williams are unmistakable.)
What was once prairie country is now smack “in the middle of a town on a highway.” Chemical plants have replaced gardens as greed has replaced compassion. A Vietnamese runs the local plastics factory. Religion is a companion but money is God, at least to the avaricious clan that comes to realize they’re land poor and may never receive the inheritance they believe is rightly theirs. That will have to wait at least until the death of Stella. Capricious yet especially kind to Doug, the elderly black she rescued from a life of poverty, Stella is adamant about not dividing her precious estate, a metaphor for trying to hold onto the past. Money talks but that’s the least interesting part of a play that is hilarious in its gothic humor. (There’s a particularly felicitous use of the phrase “on my knees” in the last of four scenes.) The laughter is rueful, the observations keen.
As the matriarch, Elizabeth Ashley is spry and caustic. Wielding her cane like a conductor with a baton, her husky voice alone is enough to keep everyone in line. As daughter Mary Jo, Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter) stalks like a predator and can make even the phrase “my silver and china pattern” into a sign of idiocy and depravity. Penny Fuller is heartbreaking as another daughter, while Devon Abner as her son is obedient and introverted without being nerdy. Arthur French is a dignified family retainer, Virginia Kull a feather-brained teenager and Gerald McRaney a pitiable wreck of a wastrel.
Michael Wilson’s direction brings out the nuances, never rushing, always detailed. In what could be a static evening of sitting around talking of inheritances and missed opportunities, Wilson is so invested in the characters and story that theatergoers listen for heartbeats. Jeff Cowie’s set, Rui Rita’s lighting, David C. Woolard’s costumes and John Gromada’s music and sound contrast respectable reality with fading contentment. Foote and Wilson remind us that a family portrait may be shiny on the surface but its oil is always in imminent danger of disintegration.
David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 30, 2007