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Dividing the Estate

By Simon Saltzman.

Penny Fuller (from left), Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley play members of a troubled Southern family in Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate."

Penny Fuller (from left), Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley play members of a troubled Southern family in Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate."



It is not very likely that you will see a finer, funnier or more enjoyable play on or off Broadway this season than Dividing the Estate. Taking as his inspiration the hard times that befell Texas and its longstanding families when the oil-gushing prosperity of the early 1980s suddenly dried up, native son Pulitzer Prize-winner (The Young Man from Atlanta) Horton Foote has set his lovely play in the small town of Harrison, Texas. The prolific and lauded author of such memorable works as The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies is finally seeing his 1989 play have its long overdue New York premiere. About a venerable Texas family torn between preserving its homestead and heritage or selling the land for the dream of wealth it once promised, Dividing the Estate is, as handsomely presented by Primary Stages, sheer pleasure and worthy of an extended run.


How much tweaking Foote has done with the play since it first appeared in its premiere at the McCarter Theater in 1989 is difficult to determine. But what is easy to see is that whatever faults it may have had then, it is, in its present state, a honey of a play. Seductively rambling as it is, Dividing the Estate is affectionately textured with deftly defining (as in comical), dialogue and memorable characters. Michael Wilson, who directed Foote's The Day Emily Married for Primary Stages, as well as The Carpetbagger's Children for Lincoln Center Theater, is again at the helm proving that he can capture the distinctly incomparable essence of Foote's folk better than anyone.


Despite its purposefully drawling plot, the play is structured to keep us as enamored by the sameness of its repetitions as it is with the way the characters shift attitudes and allegiances. I didn't count how many times someone said, in so many words, something about "Dividing the Estate" but it is indicative of the way the play builds upon its progressive theme with a vengeance. It is almost musical in its journey to a resolve.


The play's meticulously distilled dramatic development is left in the hands of its idiosyncratic family members. The rather large cast of thirteen can be complimented for presenting us with a roomful of fascinating characters. Going over and over the same material may not seem like the most exciting way to dramatize, but Foote's brilliance is in his ability to spark our interest by making the sameness seem not only fresh, but welcomed. As a particularly sensitive chronicler of the rural South for over 66 years, Foote is unique in dramatizing the minutiae and simpler aspects of lives in upheaval.


In Dividing The Estate, a large and wealthy family realizes that they are extended beyond their means. They quickly discover that facing their creditors without losing what has been accumulated over generations is rather less fearsome than facing each other. Indomitable Southern matriarchy couldn't be in better hands than Elizabeth Ashley's. Notably at home with Tennessee Williams canon, Ashley's venture into Foote territory adds more luster to her distinguished career, as Stella, the family matriarch. Stella's stubborn resistance to dividing the patriarch-less estate is given support by Son (Devon Abner). Abner, an alum from the Signature Theater's revival of Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, is excellent and perceptibly resilient as the family's business manager who, after leaving college, has tried against all odds to remain loyal and devoted to the family's future and fortunes. Penny Fuller's role as daughter-in-law Lucille doesn't give her the opportunity to rest on eccentricities, but she is wonderful in exercising restraint in the face of chaos.


Family spoilers include Lewis (Gerald McRaney), the alcoholic, gambling ne'er-do-well  in trouble with Irene (Virgina Kull), a high school girl, and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), a spoiled, self-centered matron with two spoiled, self-centered daughters (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance). Ms Foote, whose presence in a Foote play is not only obligatory, but a reason to cheer, is standout as she frames Mary Jo's callousness and single-purposed courage with a poignant sense of desperation. She also gets and deserves the most laughs with her obsessive goal to win parity in the family. James Demarse is effective as Bob, Mary Jo's panic-filled realtor husband who hasn't sold a property in five months and is now faced with losing his own home to boot. Maggie Lacey is a hoot as Pauline, Son's schoolteacher-fiancée who uses a charmingly off-beat approach to diffuse the turbulence around her.


The bickering, intrusive servants are an important and amusing group. Arthur French is excellent and touching as Doug, the 92 year-old house servant, whose unstable service borders on the somnambulistic. Keiana Richard makes points as Cathleen, the outspoken maid with aspirations of law school, and Lynda Gravatt is quite funny as Mildred, the put-upon cook.

The play, which boasts an impressive living and dining room set by Jeff Cowie projects the affluence of it inhabitants, all costumed nicely by David C. Woolard. Woolard really goes to town, however, with the hilarious dresses for the spoiled girls. Rather than dividing the estate, director Wilson has put all the pieces of this gallery of Southern Texans together to make a memorable mosaic of gentry at home and at their wits end.


Dividing the Estate (through October 28)

Primary Stages at 59E59, between park and Madison Avenues

For tickets ($60) call (212) - 279 - 4200