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 Harrison, Texas — the fictional small town where author Horton Foote set most of his sixty plays. Stella 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.
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But the family's financial situation is precarious. Where the house was once surrounded by cotton fields, it now stands beside a highway, and the value of the land 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. Observing all of this is Pauline, the schoolteacher Son is dating. Eventually Lewis's teenage flame, Irene, who works at the nearby Whataburger, also shows up.
This large-cast ensemble piece features a tangle of shadowed and difficult relationships. A lot of the big, dramatic stuff 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. Pauline brings up topics like bilingual education that the blinkered and old-fashioned Gordons find uncomfortable, but she doesn't pursue them far, and no one challenges her. Lewis insists that the estate must be divided because he's desperate for money; by the second act, though, he's apologizing. Meanwhile, Son wants to keep the place together — but he changes his mind without much fuss when confronted with the financial realities. And you can't hate Mary Jo's husband, Bob, for his cold-blooded financial calculations when you learn that he has lost his job and their house is being foreclosed on. Even the deaths that occur are anti-climactic. The word "despair" feels histrionic here: The characters seem quietly drained rather than despairing.
Dividing the Estate
Presented by the Arvada Center through May 26, Black Box Theater at the Arvada Center for the Arts, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.
Director A. Lee Massaro has mounted a first-rate production. Brian Mallgrave's richly detailed set is a star in its own right, and the performances range from good to excellent, with particularly effective work from Anne Oberbroeckling as Stella; Rachel Fowler as a calm, centered but ultimately ineffectual Lucille; Leigh Nichols Miller, who makes Son the closest thing to a hero the script allows; Sharon Kay White as loud-mouthed Mary Jo; and Michael McNeill as husband Bob. And it's great to see Mark Rubald in a dramatic role again, playing helpless, sleazy but not irredeemable Lewis.
Despite the muted overall tone, Dividing the Estate holds your attention throughout and stays with you afterward. 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 — are all resonant today. Most viewers will be able to identify with the Gordons' blindness and bewilderment and their slowly dawning understanding — accompanied by varying levels of acceptance — that they may soon be joining teenage Irene at the counter of the Whataburger.