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Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Dividing the Estate
Old Globe

Dividing the Estate
Horton Foote, Jr., Hallie Foote, Penny Fuller and Elizabeth Ashley
The late Horton Foote loved the characters he put in his plays. He wanted them to be human with all that implies, grace, foolishness, the works. Even if we don't like them we can tell that he's there for them.

Which is pretty much the case in Dividing the Estate, Mr. Foote's last work, which is making its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe.

The Gordons are fools. They are affected by "trust-fund-itis," that not-so-rare disease that turns otherwise productive people into layabouts with money. Only they never set up trust funds or took care to protect themselves legally, so the money is running out.

That's about the story. Oh, there are more than a few other details, but really, that's about it. The time is 1987, and that's important to know, because there's a recession on, people are out of work, homes are being foreclosed, and smaller towns are drying up as their residents move to cities in hopes of finding work. People who are used to staying at home are looking for jobs to help make ends meet. In other words, economic transformation is leading to social transformation.

Dividing the Estate was produced on Broadway in 2008, and while Mr. Foote was an extremely prolific playwright (60 plays in a 60-year career, including The Trip to Bountiful and his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Young Man from Atlanta) the time in which the play is set may well be coincidental (an earlier version debuted in 1989). The 2007 recession, which can't help but resonate with contemporary audiences, unfortunately makes the characters onstage seem more foolish than might have otherwise been the case.

The Old Globe has imported much of the Broadway production, and you're not going to be disappointed in its quality. Jeff Cowie's set includes an alcove in the far reaches of the large living room where family members can (and do) go to escape the hubbub, as well as a dining area where a funny and confrontational family meal occurs (though not nearly as confrontational nor as funny as a similar scene in the Old Globe's recent production of August: Osage County). David C. Woolard's costumes are dead on, and Rui Rita's lighting sensitively brings the scenes to life. John Gromada's original music and sound design are also used in this production.

Michael Wilson directed the large cast with care, and it would be hard to find a more qualified bunch to play these roles. Elizabeth Ashley, in a lovely, layered, performance as Stella, the family's matriarch, deftly navigates being dominating without being domineering. Stella remembers many things, conveniently forgets some things (this is Texas, after all, a small town outside Houston, but of course Rick Perry wasn't on the scene yet, let alone running for president), and makes sure that no one gets out of line.

The cast also features two of Mr. Foote's children, Hallie and Horton, Jr., who play family members most affected by their malaise (Mary Jo is a profligate spender; Lewis is a drunk). Penny Fuller as Lucille, the eldest sibling, takes her role as the responsible one seriously, while putting Devin Gordon, her son (who has the very Texas name of Son), into an eternal no-win situation as the underpaid manager of the family's holdings.

Mary Jo's husband Bob (James DeMarse) and daughters Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance) are also on hand, but all of them are pretty one-note characters: Bob frets about the lack of legal protections for the estate, while Emily and Sissie look bored and roll their eyes a lot (did young people roll their eyes in 1987?). Son's fiancÚe Pauline (Kelly McAndrew), a perky school teacher who hilariously doesn't fit in at all, spends a lot of her time at the house, and Lewis' mysterious 19-year-old girlfriend (a very-19 Bree Welch) makes a late appearance.

The household's staff includes three African Americans Doug (the fine Roger Robinson), who is 92 and has lived with the family for virtually his entire life, Mildred (Pat Bowie) and her granddaughter Cathleen (Keiana RichÓrd), who is attending college and who represents the "new" reality that will emerge from the changing social mores.

There is a chart of family relationships in the program that is very helpful in sorting out the connections.

Despite expert work from all concerned, Dividing the Estate is not Mr. Foote's best script. The second act drags in the name of comedy, and the audience tires of the same plot points being made over and over. When it comes time for family members to confront each other, the result is humorous but not satisfying. Mr. Foote seems to be saying that, while hell may be defined as the necessity of living with our families, somehow we'll all find a way to make it work. His optimism is admirable but it is completely at odds with his play.

Dividing the Estate plays through February 12, 2012, at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets ($29 - $87) are available by calling the Old Globe box office at (619) 23-GLOBE or online at www.oldglobe.org.

The Old Globe presents Dividing the Estate by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson with Jeff Cowie (Scenic Design), David C. Woolard (Costume Design), Rui Rita (Lighting Design), John Gromada (Original Music and Sound Design), Stephanie Klapper (New York Casting Director) and Marisa Levy (Stage Manager).

The cast includes Elizabeth Ashley, Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote, Horton Foote, Jr., Devon Abner, Pat Bowie, James DeMarse , Nicole Lowrance, Kelly McAndrew, Jenny Dare Paulin, Keiana RichÓrd, Roger Robinson, and Bree Welch.


Photo: Henry DiRocco

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.



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