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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DIVIDING THE ESTATE
at the 59E59 Theaters

A FEE SIMPLE?
By Bill Stevenson

  Elizabeth Ashley

In a youth-dominated culture in which middle-aged screenwriters are considered over the hill, it's refreshing to see that 92-year-old Horton Foote is still cranking out well-made plays. His latest Southern drama, Dividing the Estate, is set in Texas in 1987 and contains a large cast of characters, each of whom is utterly believable. The plot, which goes into considerable detail regarding a family's finances, is equally convincing. Foote (The Trip to Bountiful, The Young Man from Atlanta) clearly hasn't lost his ear for dialogue or his ability to draw an audience into a story.

The estate in question belongs to Texas matriarch Stella (Elizabeth Ashley). She is adamant that her farmland and house, which now abuts a highway, not be divided up in her lifetime. Stella shares her antiques-filled home with daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) and grandson Son (Devon Abner). She also has three servants, including the increasingly feeble, 92-year-old Doug (Arthur French). Stella's other two children, Lewis (Gerald McRaney) and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), are pressuring her to divide the estate because they constantly need money. Lewis has a gambling problem, not to mention an underage girlfriend (Virginia Kull), while Mary Jo's husband Bob (James Demarse) is suffering from Houston's real estate slump. Mary Jo and her daughters, Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance), are accustomed to nice clothes and trips to Europe, so they are happy to sell off family land to come up with cold, hard cash.

Occasionally, the dialogue becomes repetitive. Stella must mention dividing the estate at least a dozen times.

And when she and the failing Doug have a conversation while slumped in their chairs half asleep, it wouldn't be surprising if a few audience members dozed off for a minute or two. But Foote holds one's interest with finely honed characters and some unforeseen turns of events. There are also plenty of amusing lines, such as Emily asking Are we part Yankee, mama? Money-grubbing Mary Jo gets the last word-well, two words-and they provide a slyly funny sendoff.

Under Michael Wilson's direction, the whole cast is excellent. Ashley isn't old enough to play an eightysomething grandmother, but her authentic Southern accent helps to distract us from the fact that she's only a year older than Fuller. Foote, who has acted in many of her father's plays, including Signature Theatre's acclaimed 2006 revival of The Trip to Bountiful, is just brittle enough as Mary Jo. McRaney and Fuller have compelling scenes, and Lyndra Gravatt earns laughs as head cook Mildred, who is nearly as interested in money as Mary Jo. Maggie Lacey is perfect as do-gooder teacher Pauline who is engaged to the annoyingly named Son. Kelana Richard rounds out the cast as Stella's college-age employee, who clashes with the much older, less educated Doug.

Generational differences are just one of the things Foote observes so wisely. At 92, it's no wonder the playwright is wise. What is remarkable is that he can still write such an absorbing, entertaining, and richly detailed play at his age. Here's hoping that Foote can knock off a few more before he's done.

 


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