Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) looks like she has spent her life sucking on lemons with the pucker that’s formed around her lips just begging for a do over. Actually what she arrives begging for in “Dividing the Estate”, Horton Foote’s comedy about a Southern family, is her anticipated inheritance.
At turns angry and contentious, and at others purely childish, the character Ms. Foote portrays is dangerously evocative of greed. Like in the scene where she fights with her siblings, hopping across the stage thrusting her hips and stomping her foot like a fornicating bunny rabbit, she demands attention for her financial woes. In the role, Ms. Foote is as comedic as she is despicable. After all, no self-respecting person would ever act this way, although the threat over the fallout (if she doesn’t get the money she needs) feels shockingly familiar.
To be sure, Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, leads the cast wonderfully. She is joined in this production by an admirable ensemble that includes Elizabeth Ashley as the family matriarch. On the face it, Stella is a warm, gracious Southern lady, but behind that visage lies the selfishness that permeates this family. Since none of them work, they are all under her thumb.
There’s the faithful “Son” whose name serves as his identity and whose role is to manage the family estate. As played by Devon Abner, he is as dry as milk toast and just as ineffectual, regardless of how earnestly he applies himself. Penny Fuller as Lucille, his mother, has the demure presence of a perfect Southern lady. And Gerald McRaney portrays the roguish Uncle Lewis. Stella’s alcoholic son, notorious for his gambling losses, ironically knows how to win a bet when it comes to his family. When he shows up in the end with his girlfriend (Virginia Kull), the server from Whataburger, we get a real sense of the depths into which this once affluent, privileged family may yet descend.
Arthur French, on the other hand, portrays Doug, Stella’s elderly servant who has been with the family for generations, since his childhood really, when he and his mother tilled their land. In the first act, which is long-winded, he represents an oddly idyllic picture of the past.
The second act finally brings a reversal of fortune that is enormously enjoyable. The family predicament about “Dividing the Estate”, conceivably setting up a living trust and preserving their wealth does have an unexpected outcome. The characters bicker and they may actually loathe each other, but their shared destiny brings them together as a family in the most ironical and discomfiting way. There are few pleasures equal to watching their comeuppance.
While Jeff Cowie’s interior drawing room seems cold with a corporate polish, his painting of the white columned house and the surrounding fields evokes a sense of longing much like Tennessee Williams’ image of Belle Reeve.
Michael Wilson’s direction focuses on the play’s regionalism. The Southern way of talking, the repetitive conversation and the slow rhythms seem oddly old fashioned. Still, Horton Foote’s comedy bites through the surface giving us a wham bang ending. At 92-years-old, one of our greatest living writers is still blossoming. This time with enough cynicism to illuminate a social plight that affects us all.
By: Isa Goldberg
"Dividing the Estate” is a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Booth Theatre, 225 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 P.M., Saturdays and Wednesdays at 2 P.M. and Sundays at 3:00 P.M. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200,