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Theater review: 'Dividing the Estate' at the Old Globe

January 23, 2012 |  6:30 am

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Nothing draws out the worst in a family quite like conflicts over an inheritance. Land, money and, oh, God, jewelry, have a way of reviving old rivalries and resurrecting long-buried grudges.

Horton Foote, an America dramatist who was a master of revealing all sorts of tragic goings-on lurking under the calm domestic surface, lays bare the self-seeking ferocity of otherwise loving brothers and sisters in his superb drama “Dividing the Estate.” This quietly furious work, being presented at the Old Globe with many of the same actors from Michael Wilson’s critically acclaimed 2008 Broadway production, is not just an acute psychological study, it’s a deeply perceptive sociological one as well.

The British would call this a state-of-the-nation play. And indeed, with all the talk of foreclosures, layoffs and the depredations of big business, you’d have reason to think it came hot off the press, but it was first performed in 1989. “Dividing the Estate” takes place in the playwright’s fictionalized hometown of Harrison, Texas, in the late 1980s during a recession in the oil industry. Foote, who died in 2009, had made revisions to the script for its New York premiere, but one of the eye-opening aspects of the play is the way it provides historical depth to our current crises. Yes, 20-odd years ago we were fretting, just as we are today, over how America is becoming a service economy and falling behind more industrious Asian countries as sloth, greed and superficiality threaten to accelerate the pace of decline.

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What makes Foote’s critique sting is the casualness of his manner and his sly satiric humor. The playwright gets us to listen to what we might be inclined to tune out by interesting us first and foremost in his characters. Indeed, the play behaves almost like a novel in the way it’s so colorfully populated and sumptuously furnished. The proscenium picture could hardly be crisper. Jeff Cowie’s tastefully appointed main house set, with its graceful antiques arrayed on an antique carpet like an artful floral arrangement, almost blurs the line between realism and reality itself.

This impressive household, headed by Stella Gordon, a Southern matriarch in her 80s played with doddering grande-dame seniority by Elizabeth Ashley, is clinging to the vestiges of a world that no longer exists. The property, once surrounded by gracious homes, now faces a highway. Burger joints dot the town, and a nearby plastic factory owned by Vietnamese newcomers serves as a symbol of the changes that have recently been afoot.

These are tough economic times. Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Son (Devon Abner), Stella’s daughter and grandson, look after the house and farm with the help of a few African American servants, the oldest being Doug (Roger Robinson), a trembling 92-year-old who recalls the devoted Firs from Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Lewis (Horton Foote Jr.), Lucille’s alcoholic brother who also lives at the house, takes frequent loans from the estate, something that Son insists the family can no longer afford.

One solution to the financial woes would be to divide the estate. This is the plan that Lucille and Lewis’ prodigal sister, Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), espouses when she arrives for a visit with her husband, Bob (James DeMarse), and daughters, Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance). Mary Jo also has run up a sizable debt against her share of the estate, and now that her husband’s real estate business has virtually collapsed, she desperate needs the money to keep up the Houston lifestyle she and her materialistic daughters have unwisely grown accustomed to.

Stella, however, won’t consider splitting up the family’s homestead any more than the matriarch of Chekhov’s masterpiece will hear of selling the cherry orchard. For her, this isn’t simply acreage — it’s lineage and memory (selective memory, but that’s another story). Let Bob blather all he wants about balance sheets. Stella doesn’t care a whit about the inheritance tax her children will have to pay after her death, a position that only intensifies Mary Jo’s wrath.

This production, safely under the directorial command of Wilson, one of the most esteemed interpreters of Foote’s work, is a family affair. Two of Foote’s children are in the cast, the brilliantly hilarious Hallie as Mary Jo, who stomps around the house with balled fists and a backlog of rage, and Horton Jr., who has returned to the stage as a way of paying homage to his deceased father in the role of Lewis, a character he doesn’t quite make the most of, but the sentiment behind the casting is nonetheless touching.

The delectable staginess of Ashley and the bull-in-a-china-shop rowdiness of DeMarse are nicely balanced by the understated qualities brought by Fuller and Abner (Hallie Foote’s real-life husband), who never appear to be acting, only living. All told, it’s a well-knit ensemble, which is the necessary condition for success with Foote’s work, always a gift to actors no matter the size of the part or the scale of the theatricality.

“Dividing the Estate” has dire news to tell about the country and its citizens, but because it’s bursting with never-changing human nature, the bleakness is transformed into delight.

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-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

“Dividing the Estate,” the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Feb. 12 Tickets start at $29. (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.


Photos: Upper: (from left) Horton Foote Jr., Hallie Foote, Penny Fuller and Elizabeth Ashley.  Lower: Hallie Foote  (with James DeMarse and Jenny Dare Paulin). Credit: Henry DiRocco.

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