Sunday, December 14, 2008

As if Torn from Today's Headlines....

Dividing the Estate
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
Starring Devon Abner, Elizabeth Ashley, Hallie Foote, Arthur French, Penny Fuller, Gerald McRaney

Booth Theater
222 West 45th Street
Performances from October 23, 2008 to January 4, 2009

Ashley in Dividing the Estate (photo: Joan Marcus)
Horton Foote’s exemplary play Dividing the Estate arrives on Broadway with its very best qualities--wonderfully real characters, scads of witty repartee, and an involving story--intact.

Taking place in Harrison, Texas in 1987, Dividing the Estate concerns the Gordon family, led by its ornery, stubborn 85-year-old matriarch Stella, who runs the family farm with an iron fist. Son, her grandson, oversees what was once a very lucrative estate, but one which has been hemorrhaging money thanks to the current economic climate. (Of course, any similarity to what’s going on today is strictly coincidental.) Two of Stella’s children still live at home with her: the oldest, Lewis, always in the middle of a shady deal and interested in high school girls; and Son’s mom, Lucille. Stella’s other daughter, Mary Jo, visits from nearby Houston with her husband Bob and 20-ish daughters Emily and Sissie in tow. As always, Mary Jo and Lewis beg their mother to divide the estate to ease everybody’s fast-mounting debts.

Foote writes intimate and flavorful glimpses of Southerners’ lives, usually set in the small Texan town of Harrison, and Dividing the Estate is one of the 91-year-old playwright’s most satisfying plays: invigorating, ennobling, and grandly entertaining. Foote’s fleet dialogue is enriched by several of the juiciest performances currently on Broadway, led by Elizabeth Ashley’s marvelously ripe Stella; Gerald McRaney’s perfectly-played Lewis; Devon Abner’s Son, whose deliberate tones mark him as the competent guardian of the family trust; Penny Fuller’s Lucille, whose flightiness masks deep personal wounds; Hallie Foote’s revelatory Mary Jo; and Arthur French’s bittersweetly amusing servant Doug.

What remains remarkable about Dividing the Estate is its rich vein of humor, often dark if not strictly black in tone, as Foote finds the deep-rooted humanity in this eccentric but never unsympathetic family. On Jeff Cowie’s superlative set–which shows off more of this well-appointed estate’s interior than was possible on the tiny Primary Stages stage when it premiered last fall–Michael Wilson’s direction understatedly handles Foote’s seamless mesh of comedy and tragedy.

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