It’s not entirely surprising that Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” has taken almost 20 years to reach New York. It’s a distinctly old-fashioned, single-setting work with an air of familiarity in its account of a farm family circling an elderly matriarch for their share of the inheritance. But spend time with Foote’s richly human characters and concerns about the play’s dustiness quickly fade. The Chekhovian intrusion of past upon present, the melancholy acknowledgement of a world in decline, the gentle but tart humor, the clear-eyed compassion tinged with despair — these qualities remind us why the 91-year-old playwright remains such a distinctively expressive voice in contemporary American drama.
The play, which premiered at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey in 1989, receives a solid Primary Stages presentation from Michael Wilson. If 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.
Unfolding in Foote’s customary fictional town of Harrison, in southeast Texas, the action takes place in 1987 against a background of economic collapse, as the farming and oil industries struggled, Houston businesses were going bankrupt and banks and other financial institutions were folding in the largest numbers since the Depression.
Despite her advanced age and erratic memory, the benignly domineering, widowed Stella Gordon (Elizabeth Ashley) still rules the stately old family home, its cotton fields long since gone unplanted and its surrounding residences torn down to make way for strip malls and fast food joints. Stella entrusts the running of the house to her dutiful daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) and management of the estate to Son (Devon Abner), Lucille’s level-headed 40-year-old son.
Reflections on the downturn in the community come — not always entirely organically — via Son’s schoolteacher fiancee Pauline (Maggie Lacey), whose sweet-natured openness contrasts nicely with some of the family members’ self-interest.
Initially front and center among those itching to avoid inheritance taxes by splitting the assets while Mama is still kicking is her son Lewis (Gerald McRaney), a drinker and gambler who finds himself in an awkward corner when his relationship with a young girl comes to her hostile father’s attention.
But Lewis’ demands for advances on his share of the estate seem almost diplomatic next to the shameless maneuvering of his sister Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), a sharp-edged harpy whose husband Bob (James DeMarse) has no problem segueing from moments of pain or grief directly into calculated questions about the cash supposedly coming his way.
Rounding out the thorny family tree are Mary Jo and Bob’s bored, selfish daughters, sitting cross-legged and exchanging disapproving glances in Nicole Lowrance and Jenny Dare Paulin’s amusing perfs.
Then there’s doddery 92-year-old lifelong family servant Doug (Arthur French), too proud to relinquish his duties to plain-speaking housekeeper Mildred (Lynda Gravatt) and even less to young Cathleen (Keiana Richard), whose efforts to better herself at college are looked on dubiously by uneducated Doug. The wily interplay between Ashley and French and the mutual loyalty of their senior status among the white and black characters, respectively, feeds a well-nourished strain of poignant humor.
Any of the folks onstage might have veered into caricature, but Foote’s feather-light touch as a sculptor of flawed but never irredeemable characters — echoed by the expert cast’s subtle degrees of exposure — enables them all to keep uncovering fresh nuances. Indeed, while Wilson’s approach at first seems blandly efficient, the absence of directorial or design flourishes precludes distractions from the sensitive observation of the extended family, its bonds and its frictions.
Much as the scenario seems familiar and the ending too protracted, Foote nudges the outcome in quietly surprising directions offering bittersweet irony. Down to its generic title, the comedy doesn’t have the delicacy of the playwright’s best work, like the achingly elegiac “The Trip to Bountiful,” seen in a superlative New York revival two seasons back at Signature Theater Company. But even at less-than-peak form, Foote is a profoundly humanistic playwright. He displays forgiveness for even the most seemingly venal and grasping of his characters by grounding even their worst behavior in need.
Among a bunch of lovely, generally understated performances, McRaney smoothly navigates the shift from self-serving belligerence to humility, decency and later to rejuvenated joy when his beloved appears (Virginia Kull in a brief but delightful comic turn that helps wrap things up on a light note). Abner, Fuller and Lacey all etch good souls struggling to maintain composure. And French’s scenes are among the play’s funniest and most touching.
Hallie Foote remains a peerless interpreter of her father’s work, deftly edging Mary Jo toward unsympathetic, often hilariously prickly extremes before pulling her back to show the vulnerability beneath the manipulation.
Perhaps best of all is Ashley, wrapping her smoky tones around a role with more than a touch of Big Mama from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a part she played for Wilson at Hartford Stage in 2005. The stage vet brings a gossipy sense of mischief; a frayed, earthy authority; befuddled confusion; withering double takes; and a determination to hold onto the past that steadily and sadly erodes as reality stacks up against her.
Ashley’s is an appropriately big-hearted turn in a work from a playwright whose every line ripples with heart.