Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 20, 2008
Dividing the Estate by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Sets by Jeff Cowie. Costumes by David C. Woolard. Lighting by Rui Rita. Original Music and sound by John Gromada. Cast (in alphabetical order): Devon Abner, Elizabeth Ashley, Pat Bowie, James DeMarse, Hallie Foote, Arthur French, Penny Fuller, Virginia Kull, Maggie Lacey, Nicole Lowrance, Gerald McRaney, Jenny Dare, Paulin Keiana RichÓrd.
This production, which has been directed by Michael Wilson, would be much more compelling if it didn't invite that same question. The rich background of the Gordons and their 5,000 acres of once-prime farmland is just as marred by the unfeeling, corporate present (which, for them, is 1987) as this once-glimmering mounting is by the realities, both real and imagined, of Broadway. You wonder less "How can the little guy make it?" than "Why doesn't the little guy know it's sometimes okay to not be big?"
When Primary Stages presented the show in the fall of 2007 with largely the same cast, it made a virtue of compactness. A tiny theater housing a small but detail-packed set (by Jeff Cowie) depicting an old-time home of fiery but fading grandeur was the ideally claustrophobic locale for trapping a dozen people who hate to love each other. Seated just feet away from the action, you became as involved as the characters in their laughably inflated petty squabbles about the desire to maintain a leisurely life, conflicts that silently warned America of the looming aftereffects of its own abandon.
Siblings Lewis (Gerald McRaney) and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter) have borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the estate, and are intent on splitting up the family's wealth to alleviate their present crises. Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), their octogenarian mother, is vehemently opposed to their plan, wanting what's always been in the family to stay in the family. Stella's other daughter, Lucille (Penny Fuller), and her son Son (Devon Abner), have devoted their lives to working the estate, and don't want their sacrifices to have been for naught.
When filtered through playwright Foote's famously low-key fireworks, in which half-swallowed sentences can generate showstopping laughs or floods of tears and awkward pauses can contain full avalanches of history, this could be a dynamic blueprint for a struggle for control and individuality approaching the level of Tracy Letts's epic August: Osage County, playing at the Music Box across the street. And at Primary Stages, it was.
Some of this might be unavoidable. While small by Broadway standards, the Booth stage is large enough to force the actors to traverse unrealistic distances across Cowie's expanded set, whether entering and exiting or even just speaking to others with whom they're supposedly engaged in intimate conversation. Similarly, you lose the effect of the Gordons, their servants, and their unwitting guests piling on top of each other in ever more precariously as the evening progresses: The comically devastating final scene should represent a group incarceration; here, it looks like everyone is lining up for a proscenium-spanning curtain call.
The actors themselves, however, can't be so easily excused. Many of the performances that were impeccably cut jewels Off-Broadway have had facets cracked by the now-necessary shouting and by the wear and tear of time. Abner has let a discordant note of desperation seep into Son, ruinous for a man who's own downfall comes from playing it cool once too often. McRaney and Fuller have become too arch and unsympathetic, now (particularly in the first act) almost deserving their ultimate fate. Hallie, who previously presented a font of buoyant self-concern, now navigates her copious laughs as with a battle plan, barking much of her way through someone who should grate because she misuses and misunderstands her inborn gentility.
Without these central portrayals at their utmost, the play becomes dangerously unbalanced. Because the periphery folk, such as Arthur French as an ancient black servant and Maggie Lacey as Son's politically minded schoolteacher fiancÚe, remain in fit form, you start to wonder - in a way you shouldn't - that the interlopers have already arrived.
There's one major exception. While it's perhaps less than ideal that an actress pushing 70 doesn't yet look 60 but is playing someone of 85, Ashley never strains the way many of her castmates do in conveying words and emotions to the farthest reaches of the house. Stella's obstinacy, her reverence for tradition, and her unconventionally unyielding love for her family all appear effortlessly natural. Ashley plays a matriarch in the truest, strongest, and scariest sense of the word, exerting will enough to make you believe Stella really could halt the march of time if she so chose.
That no one can - and that no one should - is at the Gordons' problems. They've spent decades closing their curtains on the decaying landscape around them, can no longer ignore that the world of their birth is gone forever. Dividing the Estate still captivates as a chronicle of what can, and probably what must, happen to such shortsighted people in a country that demands a longer, more sensible view. But experiencing the full impact of the story is impossible when most of the actors, like the characters they're playing, seem to be struggling just to get through the day.