Their loss, however, is our gain in Dividing the Estate, the 18-year-old Foote play finally receiving its New York premiere in a lovely production directed by Michael Wilson at Primary Stages at 59E59. Each of the play’s 13 characters may be tormented by the ghosts of the past, but they’re playmates next to the looming present that threatens to wipe them all, as well as Harrison, right off the face of the map of the South. Who, other than Foote, could make the imminent destruction of life itself into a vivifying joy?
For that matter, what other playwright would see the story behind the story of Texas in the 1980s? With plummeting oil prices, the bankruptcy of countless businesses, the Savings and Loan Crisis, and the stock market crash to come, the Texas of 1987 was a grandly theatrical tragedy waiting for the writing. With Dividing the Estate, set in that same year, Foote has provided that, though he hasn’t told the story about corruption at the highest levels. He’s focused instead on his beloved Harrison, which is about to be swept away in the flood of the trickle-down effect.
One family hardest hit by the crumbling economy has been a Harrison fixture for generations, still occupying the same grand house and 5,000 acres they have for the past century. To some of them, such as mother Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller), and Lucille’s son Son (Devon Abner) it’s a source of life and inspiration; to others, most notably Stella’s son Lewis (Gerald McRaney) and daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) and her family, it’s a bottomless font of income that’s being wasted as long as it’s not being utilized.
The factions have come almost to civil war over whether the estate should be kept intact until Stella dies (which, given her age and frailty, won’t be long) or parceled out now to the many family members who all need or want their own piece. Never mind that Son, Stella’s trusted bookkeeper, has decreed that with very little cash on hand, there’s not enough to advance Lewis a loan to pay off his gambling debts or Mary Jo much beyond her $400 monthly stipend, let alone pay the taxes on the land at the end of the year.
Dividing the Estate digs to great depths with the money wrangling, which mirrors in selfishness and selflessness the combating social forces of the era. But it’s first and foremost the family that drives the play, and they’re all so richly realized in text and performance that the economic lessons you’re getting seem of considerably lesser importance.
One can only marvel, for example, at the symbiotic relationship of Lucille and Son that’s formed over their caring for Stella and the estate they all so cherish. Sobering perspective is provided by the black servants of three generations (Keiana Richàrd as the youngest, Lynda Gravátt as the middle-aged watchwoman, and Arthur French as the adorably ancient one who remembers Stella’s mother), all of whom also have a great deal at stake in the outcome of the estate. The last-minute appearance of Lewis’s secret girlfriend, Irene (Virginia Kull), is a hilarious and haunting portent of what the future of Harrison might look like.
It’s Foote’s ultimate contention that the past often informs us more strongly than the choices we make today, but that holding on to what was is nonetheless of great importance, even for (or perhaps especially for) those who would scorn it. This is mirrored not just in Wilson’s meticulously paced staging and the peeling, enveloping gentility of Jeff Cowie’s set and David C. Woolard’s costumes, but also the cast, which blends seasoned veterans with comparative newcomers to arresting effect. Ashley seems a shade too sturdy for the on-her-last-legs Stella, but everyone else seamlessly blends into a living family portrait, capturing the necessary sense of struggling to maintain lightness beneath the weight of financial and familial obligations.
No one is more effective than Hallie, the playwright’s daughter and perhaps his greatest living interpreter, who morphs from brittle to supercilious to caring with such a fluid sense of self that you never feel you’re watching an actress but instead a living extension of the words on the page. From her frustration in the earliest scenes to her uproarious resignation at the end (which makes repeating a single phrase into a showstopping affair), she’s the evanescence of existence given human form, perfectly placed in a play that delightfully and disdainfully reminds us that nothing, like everything, is forever.
Dividing the Estate