Dividing the Estate
Stella (Lois Smith) is the family matriarch of the Gordon family, which includes three generations. The land associated with the estate provides a dwindling income. Her daughter, Lucille (Penny Fuller), a widow, lives on the premises. Lucille's son, Son (Devon Abner), left college to tend to the estate. Lewis (Gerald McRaney) is Lucille's brother who has a drinking problem and tends to fool around with very young women.
Arriving on the scene well into the play is vivacious, audacious Mary Jo (played by Hallie Foote, Horton's daughter). She brings along daughters Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissy (Nicole Lowrance). Bob (James DeMarse) is Mary Jo's husband, who is easily agitated and prognosticates fiscal doom for all.
Foote also provides some dedicated, loyal household helpers including the excellent actor Arthur French, who plays Doug, a man who is kind and comical.
Dividing the Estate is about family, land, mortality and money. Something of a smorgasbord in terms of subplots, it draws a primary focus late during the initial act as the family gathers for dinner.
Early on, Lois Smith, playing the pivotal role of Stella, seems to stumble a bit. Frankly, it's difficult to ascertain whether this was characterization or whether Smith, new to the production, was acclimating to the part as the Hartford rendering opened. Another minor quibble is this: Actor Devon Abner, playing Son, appears to be visually in the same age range as his mother, Lucille (Penny Fuller) - and this is somewhat confusing.
Harrison, Texas is in the midst of a recession. Should the Gordons allow oil drilling on the property? Can the farm increase its yield? Is each member of the family out, pragmatically, for him or herself? What about taxes on the estate? Foote poses these questions and more.
In some ways, this is an atypical contribution for the prolific writer who has based many of his stories in Harrison. Some of his other plays are quiet and careful - lovely miniatures. Dividing the Estate rambles some and this is delightful. It induces laugh-out-loud responses; Hallie Foote's Mary Jo steps outside the bounds of decorum with some wild and crazy lines (Ms. Fote is nominated for a Tony).
Director Wilson and Set Designer Jeff Cowie provide a proscenium stage for the production. Hence, a number of theater patrons are afforded a close up view of the proceedings as rows of seats have been added where, typically, a thrust stage emerges. Those observing from the more usual vantage points might feel just a tad removed ... Cowie's depiction of the confines of the house is both lovely and precious as the house is both wide and deep. David C. Woolard's costuming and Rui Rita's lighting add texture and tone. The presentation very much honors the gifted playwright, who moved to Hartford this past January. He passed away a month later.
Dividing the Estate continues at Hartford Stage through July 5th. For ticket information, call the box office at (860) 527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol