Dividing the Estate. Dividing the Estate is a quietly incisive play about a large and contentious family. Stella Gordon, the 85-year-old matriarch, rules over a grand old house in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas. She is strong-willed and authoritative but essentially kind — and she's determined that the family estate be preserved intact after her death. Her daughter Lucille and son Lewis live with her. Lucille is balanced and matter-of-fact; Lewis drinks, gambles and is desperate for money to pay off the father of the high-school girl he's been messing with. Though the play is set in 1987, there are still three black servants on hand: 92-year-old Doug, who shares Stella's patriarchal view of the world but is troubled by his limited education; sometimes-restless Mildred; and young Cathleen, currently attending junior college and envisioning a future that emphatically does not include waiting on white folks. Also living on site is Son, Lucille's son and Stella's grandson, an industrious guy whose attention to detail keeps the household going. But the family's financial situation is precarious. The value of the property has dwindled drastically; when Stella dies, her heirs will owe more in taxes than they can possibly access. The debate sharpens with the arrival of Stella's other daughter, Mary Jo, along with her family. She, her husband and their two shallow, grown-up daughters insist that the estate be divided and that they get their share of the money immediately. A lot of the big dramatic stuff in this ensemble piece has already taken place — the death of Lucille's husband, for example, and the drunken accident that took the life of Son's wife after their divorce — and the conversations we hear seem aimless, trivial, unfocused or gossipy. No big passions are expressed. No one appears to hold loving and profound memories of life in this house or connections to the land. And no one — not even obnoxious, money-grubbing Mary Jo — is genuinely scheming or evil. These people don't even push their verbal disagreements to the limit. Yet Dividing the Estate holds your attention throughout and stays with you afterward. Horton Foote was in his seventies when he wrote it in 1987 (he was still available to consult when it received its premiere at New York's Lincoln Center twenty years later), and beneath all the mundane on-stage goings-on you sense a resigned but compassionate wisdom. The central themes — the passing of a stable old order, human fumbling and incomprehension in the face of change, financial panic — all resonate today. Presented by the Arvada Center through May 26, Black Box Theater, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org. Reviewed May 16.
God of Carnage. Let's start with the setting, so pristine, white, minimal and tasteful — chairs with gracefully curving legs, a glass table on which art books are meticulously arranged, a vase of white tulips, nicely grouped, with just one flower swaying slightly out to the side. Even if you didn't know the play's title, you'd know what's about to happen in this room: mayhem, fury, disintegration and chaos. And believe me, the evening doesn't disappoint. We're in the home of Veronica and Michael Novak. He's a businessman specializing in household goods, she's an art-loving do-gooder currently at work on a book about Darfur. Their visitors are the Raleighs: Alan, a sharklike lawyer, and his wife, Annette, a wealth-management specialist in a sharply well-defined suit. The couples' eleven-year-old sons got into a fight on the playground, and now the four parents have come together to talk about the altercation and agree on a course of action. Things are amicable for a while, but once the veneer starts to slip, it slips more crazily than you could ever have imagined. You think rage will erupt because the parents are protective of their children, but in fact, no one expresses a shred of interest in those boys. You think the issue is going to be Alan's work: He represents a pharmaceutical company that deliberately hid information about the dangers posed by one of its drugs — a drug it turns out Michael's mother is taking. You think cracks will appear in the marriages or the men will gang up on the women or the women on the men. And indeed, almost all of this happens — but never in the way you expect. Which is why this is one of the funniest ninety minutes you'll ever spend in a theater. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 16, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 2.
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The Memory of Water. The power of mothers — for good and ill — is a theater trope that never quite loses in potency. In Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, three daughters convene for the funeral of their mother, Vi, who has, in different ways, ruined all their lives. Mary was the repository for Vi's ambitions, and she's now a successful doctor. Except that Mike, the doctor with whom she's in a long-term relationship, is married to an invalid wife and doesn't want to have a child with her. Teresa is also a doctor of sorts, a homeopath, and not very happily married. She's the one who took care of Vi as she sank into dementia, and she feels pretty resentful about it — so there's a somewhat sour tone to Teresa's periodic offers of therapeutic teas and tinctures. The third daughter, Catherine, is one of those self-destructive little sisters, given to drinking and drug-taking, self-destructive, generally ignored by the other two but still hoping for love. As the title indicates, memory is at the center of this play. The water metaphor — which strikes me as more vaguely poetic than illuminating — arises from Teresa's practice: Homeopathic cures involve remedies diluted in water to the point where no molecule of the original remains, on the theory that the water still retains a kind of ghost or aftershadow of these substances. In the same way, the spirit of Vi — who turns out to be a very lively ghost indeed — lingers in the psyches of her daughters. The script contains a lot of dry British humor, and the women's interactions are very entertaining at first. But evocative concepts keep getting raised and then dying away without having been exemplified or pursued. And the litany of the daughters' problems isn't very original. Stephenson is clearly a talented playwright with a good ear for language and a nice sense of humor, but in this early play — first published in 1997 — she hasn't yet found her voice. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through May 26, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com. Reviewed May 9.