Evidence that history repeats itself is everywhere in “Dividing the Estate.” Once-valuable farmland has made way for strip malls, local businesses are being supplanted by foreign-owned factories, the real estate market has sunk, financial institutions are hurting and more and more folks are facing bankruptcy and home foreclosures. This sweetly satirical comedy about a Texas family squaring off over their inheritance could almost be unfolding in 2008, but Horton Foote wrote the play 20 years ago and set it against the economic turmoil of the late ’80s.
The time warp may be cold comfort, but it nonetheless jogs the memory that recessions are as cyclical as the seasons. The one that backgrounds the action here was neither the first — as a passing discussion of “The Grapes of Wrath” reminds us — nor the last. Hello, plummeting bank balance.
The play had its regional premiere in 1989 but made it to New York only last year in this Primary Stages production (reviewed in Daily Variety, Sept. 28, 2007), now transferred to Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater with all but one of its accomplished 13-member ensemble intact.
A tart Chekhovian elegy for a disappearing way of life and a gentle skewering of complacent privilege, “Dividing the Estate” in many ways is a genteel cousin to the more acerbic domestic squabble being played out across the street in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.”
The occasion is a family gathering during which three generations of the Gordon clan assemble in their grand old home in Harrison, Texas (the fictitious setting for most of Foote’s plays). As the title plainly states, the subject, once they get past routine small talk, is the estate — who gets what, and when. Widowed family matriarch Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) wants to ensure the house and land remain in the family even after her death. But others, led by brittle daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), want to split the spoils in advance and get their hands on some cash fast.
The well-worn scenario is familiar from more than one chestnut of Southern drama. But the playwright’s work, as always, is distinguished by the delicate brushstrokes of his characterizations, making seasoned stereotypes human and giving even the most venal of them some hint of redeeming vulnerability.
Perhaps even more essential to the old-fashioned play’s appeal is Foote’s deep understanding of the personalities within a precisely defined subculture. There’s an exquisite balance between insidiousness and charm in this vipers’ nest, and between affectionate anecdote and malicious gossip in their chatter. These folks are all out for themselves, yet somehow they remain an inextricably bound family.
Pauline (Maggie Lacey), the schoolteacher fiancee of Stella’s estate-manager grandson (Devon Abner), is the chief conduit of information about the outside world, dropping anxious nuggets into the conversation about the environment, education and the economy. But while few responses are as blunt as the “Who cares?” that comes from one of Mary Jo’s empty-headed divorcee daughters, the self-absorbed family generally is deaf to concerns beyond their immediate sphere.
There’s nothing judgmental in the way Foote chastens them for their greed, pettiness and blissful isolation. Instead, he pulls the rug out from under his characters with humor that tempers its mischief with compassion.
Under Michael Wilson’s decorous direction, the cast has deepened its ties while maintaining the light touch, the relaxed flow and the melodiousness of the talk that are essential to Foote’s plays.
Even struggling with her erratic memory and failing health, Ashley’s Stella remains an indomitable, soulful figure. Penny Fuller brings graciousness and just the right hint of self-interest to the more dutiful daughter. Gerald McRaney transitions beautifully from drunken grouchiness to unexpected emotional outpourings. And Arthur French supplies funny-sad poignancy as an ancient family retainer, proudly determined to serve dinner despite his trembling hands.
The prickly comic center of the play and the most vociferously demanding of Stella’s children is Mary Jo. The playwright’s daughter Hallie Foote skirts invigoratingly along the edge of sitcom in a performance that’s near-hysterical yet never so abrasive we can’t grasp her fear. She’s the kind of chronically tactless figure that exists in pretty much every family.
Jeff Cowie’s well-upholstered living/dining room set has grown since the Off Broadway run, acquiring some added dimension without too much loss of intimacy, while the unique flavor of the play’s wily observations and melancholy warmth remains undiminished.