A Texas family squabbles over inheritances in Horton Foote's final play.
“You remember what you want to,” is the accusation flung at Dividing the Estate’s bull-headed and honey-voiced matriarch, Stella, who is also the parent to three middle-aged children in varyingly desperate situations who want to, as suggested, divide the estate. The Gordon family property is in Harrison, Texas, a small town “dying on the vine” (and a stand-in for Foote’s hometown of Wharton, TX) in the wake of the 1987 economic recession.
Selective memory isn’t limited to the octogenarian Stella. While folksy exposition about the origins of the family fortunes fills out the play, the revelations don’t go very far beneath the surface—such as we’d see in Chekhov’s families in plays that share the same sensibility, if not, concerns, as Dividing the Estate. We don’t learn much at all about the either the souring or solidifying of relationships within the family, but in true Southern style, we hear a boatload about who did what to or with whom and when—just not how it made them feel.
Everyone’s cards are kept close to the vest. Stella’s son Lewis (played with heart and laconic pain by Ron Wells) has mounting gambling debts and an even larger problem he’s reluctant to divulge. Daughter Mary Jo (a burst of self-centered energy from JoAnn Montemurro) is a whirling dervish of sparkling jewelry, idle gossip and talon-sharp greed, gunning for her share, but glossing over the reasons why she and her more practical husband Bob (Jon Steinhagen) and bubble-headed daughters Emily and Sissie (bratty, big-haired turns by Kathryn Acosta and Angela Sandall) really need it.
Stella’s other daughter, Lucille (a straightforward Millie Hurley-Spencer) and her son Son (a Southern nickname, not a typo, and voice of reason, played by Tim Martin) manage the estate, its acres of farmland and gracious house (seen in a sumptuous set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec), and seem anxious to maintain the status quo.
The house staff of three doesn’t tip us off as to what life in the house was like—even the comic yet savvy observations of loyal servant Doug don’t point us toward any emotional recognition of these types, though the role is played with nice timing by J.J. McCormick. The Gordons are all resolutely in the present, and for a group who for the most part hasn’t worked to earn it, they labor pretty hard for their share of the family pie.
Cody Estle’s direction keeps all of these individual orbits at an entertaining pace, particularly in a deliciously tense scene at the dinner table in which gambits are deployed and parries put forth. Foote’s writing beautifully evokes the cadence of Southerners in these clashes and declarations, especially in the pictures the words paint about chinaberry trees and Yankee carpetbaggers, though the dialects in the production are uneven, at times sounding like a combination of east Texas and northeast Illinois.
The play, which ran briefly on Broadway just before Foote’s death in March 2009, puts on display a lot of small-minded alarm about big amounts of money, and Foote pushes the characters’ greed and desperation almost to a satiric edge. So we almost get to enjoy some rich folks getting their comeuppance. But Foote’s treatment is gentler than that, and neither the big-picture, societal implications of the dissolution of someone’s hard work and legacy, nor any genuine emotional transformations, show up in this tale. We’re encouraged to point our fingers at their travails, but not so much to empathize with them.
Raven Theatre Company. By Horton Foote. Directed by Cody Estle. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.