Dividing The Estate

  • Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Horton Foote's new play, "Dividing the Estate," is clearly his best work to date and perfect for those fascinated by dysfunctional families. The elements here are an elderly matriarch, a large estate, and adult children who never worked a day in their lives.

    The Gordons are a well-to-do Texan family, and all the adult children have come together for dinner to talk about their inheritance. Still clinging to their Southern ideals, the family lives on the income of what used to be a rambling cotton plantation. Sitting on 5,000 acres of land, their estate is worth millions. But it�s 1987, the economy is not doing well, and Mama won't listen to any talk about selling the house or dividing the estate.

    Lewis (Gerald McRaney), who spends his leisurely days drinking, gambling, and fooling with jailbait, already owes the estate $200,000 and needs more to keep him from jail. Mary Jo, stealing the show with one stamp of her pampered little foot, tempestuously played by Hallie Foote, also owes the estate a few hundred thousand and wants it divided immediately, the main reason being that bankruptcy is knocking on the door of their home that's about go into foreclosure.

    Lucille (Penny Fuller), and her son, Son, manage the house and the finances, loyally trying to honor Mama's wishes. But what with the farms producing less each year, and property taxes rising each year, the estate is now cash-poor though land-rich. There's no money.

    The only thing left to do is pool resources, move in together -- and get jobs. At this prospect, Mary Jo suddenly gets religion, claiming she will "pray every night, on bended knee, to strike oil." And the black household servants do the same.

    Woven into this drama of hypocrisy, backbiting, and good family fun, is another story a la "Upstairs, Downstairs." Old Doug, lovingly portrayed by Arthur French, is 92 and preoccupied with the details of his funeral and burial, though he still insists on serving the evening meal. Mildred and Cathleen, who run the kitchen, listen to the bickering and wonder if Mama left them any bequests, especially since Cathleen hopes to go to college. And then again, will they still have jobs when Mama dies?

    "Dividing the Estate" is a story that sparkles at the hands of Foote, making one wonder why this extraordinary playwright, who has won Academy Awards for his screenplays of "Tender Mercies" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," and the Pulitzer Prize for his play, "A Young Man from Atlanta," opened his new oeuvre at a teeny theatre for a run that ends on October 28. This is one off-Broadway play that's worth the trip to New York.


    What the press had to say.....

    �Mr. Foote�s authorial gaze is focused with satiric sharpness while retaining its elegiac sense of life�s transience."
    New York Times

    "Wilson's splendid cast clicks so terrifically you almost don't notice the play's flaws. Almost. It's repetitious, some characters are great big ninnies and the play ends 20 minutes before it's over."
    New York Daily News

    "While his latest effort, which opened last night at Primary Stages, is more than a little derivative, it has the playfulness and tender affection for its characters that has marked his (Foote) best work."
    New York Post

    "Michael Wilson luxuriates in his cast's professionalism, but puts a perilous amount of trust in his audience's patience for repetitive bickering and family-tree exposition."

    "Foote has crafted deeper and more touching dramas than "Dividing the Estate," but the subtle, honest humor that enlivens this work is pleasing to witness.

    "It may not be the flashiest or tightest play in town, but he, director Michael Wilson, and a cast of 13 actors have assembled a mildly dark comedy � or perhaps a chipper tragedy."
    New York Sun

    "'Dividing the Estate' ought to be the play that finally brings Horton Foote the supreme accolade he richly deserves: the broader public's realization of what a master has been, and is, among us."

    "The playwright is detailing an extended family saga, most touchingly through the remembrances of an ancient servant (Arthur French). The man gives us a sense of what these people once had and what is rapidly disappearing. Foote makes that sense of loss very real."
    Associated Press

    "The production is physically static, unfolding somewhat mechanically on Jeff Cowie's ultra-traditional, middle-class living/dining room set, the first-rate cast bring Foote's characters so coaxingly and warmly to life, it's all but impossible not to be drawn into their problem-paved world."