The late, great Horton Foote returned to the small-town Texas he knew so well—in comedic mode this time round—in his Dividing The Estate, Tony-nominated as Best Play of 2009 and now playing at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre with two-thirds of its New York cast intact, including Foote’s daughter Hallie in the role that scored her a Tony nomination.

Though Dividing The Estate is set in 1987 (two years before its original staging), the Gordon family’s squabbles over the fate of their once proud Texas estate have been made all the more relevant in recent years by a national economic crisis that mirrors the Gordons’ personal one.  Whatever the year, just about everyone who’s ever worried about money can relate.

Like the bunch of Oklahoma rapscallions Tracy Letts brought together under one roof in August: Osage County, which Old Glober ticket-holders got to savor last Spring, their neighbors to the South generate sparks aplenty, though perhaps of a slightly more gentle (and genteel) note.

Matriarch Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) certainly has her hands full with a family as cantankerous as her spawn. Daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Lucille’s son Son (Devon Abner) have no desire to divide the estate, given that they live with Stella, draw salaries that allow them to live comfortably, and would prefer to leave well enough alone. Lucille’s brother Lewis (Horton Foote Jr.) and sister Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), are another matter entirely. Both have borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from estate manager Son, and in fact much of Act One has a drunken Lewis browbeating his nephew for another ten thousand to pay off gambling debts. Naturally Lewis, Mary Jo, and Mary Jo’s husband Bob (James DeMarse), want to cash in the estate as soon as possible, and one of Mary Jo and Bob’s daughters Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance) is planning a pricey wedding with the money their folks hope to pocket. As might be expected, Grandma Stella will have no talk of dividing the estate, though with offspring as greedy and self-centered as those she gave birth to, any hope of keeping them quiet is a vain one at best.

Completing the cast of characters are Son’s schoolteacher fiancée Pauline (Kelly McAndrew), the outsider who sees things with a more balanced perspective; African American servants Doug (Roger Robinson), Mildred (Pat Bowie), and Cathleen (Keiana Richard), who have more than the usual household duties to contend with chez the Gordons; and Irene (Bree Welch), Lewis’s girlfriend, making an eleventh-hour appearance to spice up the already tangy mix.


With a ensemble as all-around sensational as the one assembled on the Old Globe stage under Broadway director Michael Wilson’s pitch-perfect baton, it hardly seems seemly to play favorites, but note must be made of the divine Miss Ashley’s formidable Stella, the hilarious Miss Foote’s tantrum-throwing Mary Jo (the Tony Nominating Committee got that one right), and the venerable Mr. Robinson’s powerful, touching turn as Doug. If any nits are to be picked, it’s a few instance of age-inappropriate (and thereby confusing) casting. (Ashley would have had to give birth to Fuller at age one, and Abner appears at the very least the same age as Foote Jr., though he is supposed to be nearly three decades younger.)

As for the characters themselves, despite their human failings (or perhaps because of them), there are no villains (or heroes either, for that matter) in Dividing The Estate, just very real folk with whom we enjoy spending a couple of hours, though as the saying goes, we probably wouldn’t want to live there.

We might, however, want to move into the gorgeous Texas home that scenic designer Jeff Cowie has created for the Gordons, particularly as lit with a golden glow by lighting designer Rui Rita. Both Cowie and Rita designed the play’s Broadway production, as did costume designer David C. Woolard, who has created some fine ‘80s fashions with a Lone Star State flair, and sound designer, whose effects and original music add greatly to the production’s effectiveness. Stephanie Klapper is New York Casting Director. Marisa Levy is stage manager.

It’s been quite a Horton Foote year for Southern California theatergoers (and yours truly at StageSceneLA), with productions of Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta, The Traveling Lady, and The Trip To Bountiful all earning raves from this reviewer. Dividing The Estate makes it clear that Foote wrote funny as well as he wrote dramatic. It is well worth a trip down San Diego way to catch the family fireworks.

Old Globe Theatre, Conrad Prebys Theatre Center, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
January 29, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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