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Dividing the Estate
Interview with Hallie Foote

By Beth Herstein

Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley in Dividing The Estate by Horton Foote
At 91, Horton Foote is one of the most lauded and durable dramatists in America today. He won Oscars in 1962 and 1983 for adapting Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and penning the original work Tender Mercies; he recently completed a new script for star Denzel Washington and he is writing another screenplay now. His first play, Texas Town, was produced in New York in 1941, and his work has been performed on the New York stage regularly ever since. In 1995, Foote won the Pulitzer Prize for The Young Man from Atlanta. The 1994 season of the Signature Theatre Company was devoted to his work, and in 2005-2006 that company produced a memorable revival of Foote's play A Trip to Bountiful. Last year, the Drama Desk honored him with a career achievement award "for his bountiful body of work that sensitively explores the human condition." The New York Times recently described Foote's works as Chekhovian stories in which "nothing seems to happen as everything happens."

This season, Primary Stages presents Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, a comedy which debuted in 1989 at Princeton's McCarter Theatre but never made it to New York until now. Like so many of Foote's works, the play takes place in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, which is based on Foote's home town of Wharton, Texas, and is populated with characters who often are composites of people he knew from back home. In Dividing the Estate, the children and grandchildren assemble for dinner at the home of the family matriarch, Stella - who, unlike Lear, has held onto the large family home and massive estate, thus keeping her heirs beholden to her. They fight over money and reveal secrets from their pasts, all the while trying to persuade Stella either to hold onto the estate or to sell it, dividing the proceeds among them.

The show is notable for its wonderful cast, which includes theater veterans such as Elizabeth Ashley, Arthur French, Linda Gravatt and Penny Fuller; and Gerald McRaney, known to television fans for his recent parts in Jericho and Deadwood. It is directed by Foote's longtime friend Michael Wilson, who directed the playwright's The Day Emily Married at Primary Stages in 2002 and helmed his show The Carpetbagger's Children at Lincoln Center Theater in 2004. Advance buzz on the show is positive. Though still early in previews, Primary Stages recently announced that the six-week run already had extended by three days.

Family Portrait: The cast of "Dividing The Estate" by Horton Foote directed by Michael Wilson; Standing Back Row: Hallie Foote, Arthur French, Devon Abner, Keiana Richard, Nicole Lowrence, Lynda Gravatt, Maggie Lacey; Seated Front Row: Penny Fuller, Elizabeth Ashley, James DeMarse, Virginia Kull, Jenny Dare Paulin, Gerald McRaney. Now in performance through October 28, 2007 at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters

In addition to the above, Dividing the Estate features two of Horton Foote's regular collaborators: the playwright's son-in-law, actor and writer Devon Abner; and, Abner's wife, Hallie Foote. Hallie Foote plays Mary Jo, one of the strongest and pushiest advocates for selling the estate. On the surface, Mary Jo is a comical and unsympathetic character. Ms. Foote is not put off by these facts, instead relishing the opportunity to find the nuance and humanity in the part. This is not a surprise. Hallie Foote had amassed numerous stage and screen credits but in particular has won accolades for her layered interpretations of her father's characters; indeed, a 1994 New York Times' piece referred to her as "the chief interpreter of her father's plays." The unassuming and congenial actor shrugs off these accolades, stating that she is extremely fortunate to be able to work with her father and other members of her talented family. In addition to her frequent appearances in Horton's Foote's plays and in their television adaptions, she has acted in two of her sister Daisy Foote's plays and she works regularly with her husband.

Recently, Hallie Foote took some time out of her busy rehearsal and preview schedule to talk to me by phone.

Beth Herstein:  Can you tell me a little about the path Dividing the Estate has taken to get to New York?

Hallie Foote:  My father wrote this play around 1987, when the play takes place. It was done at a couple of regional theaters, and was very well received, but it just didn't make its way to New York. Michael Wilson, who my father has worked with a lot, and Primary Stages, who he's worked with a couple of times, came to him looking for a project. Michael has always loved this play. That's how he met my father. He saw a production of this, and that's when they became friends, because he loved the production so much. He's always been trying to figure out a way to bring the show to New York. Primary Stages was eager to work with my father again. So, they all got together and the result is the New York premiere. Which is really lovely.

BH:   Can you talk about the collaborative process involved in this show?

HF:   It's been really wonderful. First of all, it's a really large cast, which I find interesting. There are 13 of us. We've sort of become like a big family, which is terrific. All of the actors are really talented and they each contribute in their own ways to this play.

BH:  How have you approached the part of Mary Jo?

HF:  There are a lot of parallels today with the struggles of the characters in this show. In '87, there were problems with housing and the economy. The only difference was that oil was at rock bottom then, and now it's going through the roof. Other things mentioned in the play, that America is becoming a service economy and the struggles of people to pay their mortgages, people living way beyond their means [also ring true today].

Mary Jo is a product of all these things and that kind of sensibility. She's interesting, because on the surface she's not the most pleasant person in the world. She says what she thinks and she's not diplomatic about it. But, I also think she's very human. I don't think she's a bad person, but she thinks she has to have material things and she and her husband have gotten themselves into a hole ...

I think we all have a little bit of Mary Jo in us. I sympathize with her, and I think she also finally comes around. She's a survivor, and she's going to try to make a go of it, and that's all you can ask of someone.

BH:  There's a lot that has been written about your work with your father and your husband and your sister. But you've also had other ongoing relationships in the theater. It seems that you're drawn to collaborations that are supportive and productive.

HF:  Absolutely. And, I think I've been blessed in that way. I've been very, very fortunate. I've had wonderful material to work on, wonderful actors to work with. An example of that is this cast ... It's a very, very nice mix of people, and they all work for the parts that they're playing.

I don't come in until about 38 minutes into the play, in the second scene. So, I get to listen backstage, which is fun, and when we were rehearsing I would get to sit and watch. It's very interesting to see how the play unfolds.

BH:  You've also had ongoing relationships with a particular character [Hallie Foote played Elizabeth Robedaux nee Vaughn in 1918, On Valentine's Day, and Courtship]. What was that like, evolving with the part, as an actor?

HF:  It's almost like you start having a shorthand. Every time you work on it, you learn something more. The part you're talking about, the part of Elizabeth, is part of this orphan's home cycle that my dad wrote. Elizabeth is based on my grandmother, so that was doubly interesting. I was playing her at this younger person, who I never knew. It was a double thing - on the one hand, I was playing someone that I knew and was familiar with. But the actual character, I didn't know that well when I started out, because I never knew her at the age that she was in the plays. When I was playing her, she'd already passed away, but I access to this memory book from Kid Key College [a two-year women's college in Texas] where she went to school, and I started discovering all these things about my grandmother that I hadn't known until I got to play this part. It was really wonderful.

BH:  How much did you create outside of your grandmother's character and how much did you stay close to your grandmother?

HF:  I didn't really think about that. I just took what I got from the text. I would think occasionally, "Oh, I'm playing my grandmother." But, I didn't really think, "Would she have done this, or would she have done that?" so much. It sort of became my own person. I guess, too, because I knew my grandmother, there were things in the back of my mind that I instinctively knew or felt, that informed the character I was playing.

BH:  In an interview several years ago, you described yourself as not being as ambitious as you'd like, because you perform so frequently in your father's plays. However, you're repeatedly described as one of the foremost interpreters of Horton Foote's plays, and he's one of the preeminent playwrights of our time. That is a big achievement. You also have access to the playwright, and the ability to provide creative input, to an extent you might not have with other writers.

HF:  I think that's all true, and in that sense I'm blessed. But, I don't know as much as people think I know. I didn't grow up in Texas. I was raised in New York and New Hampshire, and only visited there. When my mom [Lillian Foote] passed away in 1992, that's when I started getting more involved in that part of the world. We'd go down and visit more. Dad has a house down there and so we'd spend time. Now in a way, I feel like I'm more involved and more curious and more immersed in that part of the world. Although, the people [Horton Foote writes about] are gone. To see them we have to visit their grave sites. Dad says, "I'm the last," and he really is.

But, there is a great storytelling tradition, and there are younger people there that do remember them and do talk about them. One of the things I'm trying to do is get it recorded. We already have tapes of people talking who are no longer living, and I'd somehow like to get a lot more of the stuff recorded. I think it's important - not just for my father's work but in general. If everybody could do that, I think they'd be enriched. You get a sense of personal history and where people are coming from. A lot of people don't even know who their grandparents are, let alone their great grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, that kind of thing. And, the thing [Horton Foote] writes about are not about specific people necessarily. They are kind of compilations, composites. But it is a part of the world he writes about, that is fading away.

BH:  My mother's parents escaped from Russia during the pogroms, unable to take any of their personal records with them. Sadly, when they died, some of the old family stories died with them.

HF:   In that sense I'm very blessed, because my father obviously has recorded [his side of the family history]. But on my mother's side it was like that as well. She was Polish, she came from Poland, and I know very little beyond my grandparents, and I don't even know a lot about them. This has made me want to go to Poland and see if I can find anything out. It's important to know who your people are, where they come from, what they were like.

BH:  You've also worked with your husband [the actor Devon Abner] frequently over the years. He writes, too, plays -

HF:  And screenplays, yes.

BH:  Do you plan to work on anything that he's written?

HF:  Absolutely. I'm trying to produce one of his movies. And I'm trying to produce a movie of my sister's. I'm also getting involved in producing because I would love to be able to do that.

There's this movie of my dad's that I'm trying to produce, called The Widow Claire, that I did [on stage, in the title role]. But, I'm not going to be in it; I would just produce it. Robert Altman was going to direct the movie, but sadly he's no longer with us. We were just about to go into production with it, and he died. We're looking for another director, and we have a distributor who's committed to the project. So, I think we're going to go forward with it.

I would also love to be in another of my sister's [Daisy Foote's] plays. I've been in two of her plays, and I really love working on them as well. She reminds me of my father. Her writing - they're not alike, but they share a kind of sensibility. They write character driven pieces. There is also something very true about their writing. She doesn't strike a false note, and neither does my father.

BH:  In an interview, when your sister was asked to say how your father influenced her, she said that the thing that inspired her the most was that his writing always rung true. So that's an especially lovely compliment.

Can you talk briefly about the Signature Theater production of A Trip to Bountiful? It was such a beautiful production.

HF:  Lois [Smith, who starred in the play], is just phenomenal. I have such respect for her. She's such a great actress, no doubt about it. All those awards she won [for Bountiful] were very well deserved. And, it was great to be in it with my husband, who I also thought was pretty good in it. James DeMarse was also in it, and he's playing my husband in [Dividing the Estate] ... It was just a great group of people. I loved the way Harris Yulin directed it. It was just one of those dream productions. You never know going into it what's going to happen, but there was just something about it that was kind of magical. The response of the audience also was very gratifying. They seemed to love it.

We're doing a production of A Trip to Bountiful [a revival of the Signature Theater production] at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. We're starting rehearsals in February, and we open around March.

BH:  Do you spend most of the year in California?

HF:  We have a place in California. My husband's from Manhattan Beach, which is near where we live, in the Pacific Palisades. He loves the Pacific Ocean. He's got me enjoying it, too, and we're out there now. But, we're back in New York as much as we can be, because we try to do plays as often as possible. And, we love being in the city. Lately we'd been spending more time in California, so it's really nice to be back here.

Dividing the Estate is currently in previews and opens on September 27 at 59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.

Photo: James Leynse

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