Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dividing the Estate, a Timeless Tale at Dramaworks

Dividing the Estate is perhaps as relevant for today's self-centered, materially obsessed culture as it was when it was written in the 1980s.  It is a timeless tale of a vanishing way of life, old money being consumed by the expenses of maintaining an estate whose inhabitants do no work and where once bustling towns have become ghost towns because of urban sprawl and a severe economic recession. The real estate bust of the late 1980's was particularly hard on Texas and this play takes place in Horton Foot's mythical town of Harrison, Texas (where many of his plays are set).   But the play is also about loyalty and devotion, the playwright empathetically portraying his characters in spite of their weaknesses.  And it is a play that puts a smile on one's face with its humor, even with abundant heartrending overtones.

In fact, the play's Director -- also the Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks, who selects the plays and does the casting, Bill Hayes -- purposely chose this work for its timeliness:  "I know so many people where money is dividing the family.  There is a sense of entitlement to their parent's money, and by picking this play we're trying to say something to the community."

The Texas Gordon clan is divided, torn by feelings of entitlement, jealousy, rapaciousness and the hint that behind every fortune is a great crime.  This is family, sometimes at its worse, and sometimes at its best. The family gyroscope is its matriarch, Stella, all the characters spinning around her in one way or another and her control is absolute, sometimes exercised as a benign dictator to her children and sometimes lovingly, particularly to her 92 year old black servant, Doug, who has been with the family since he was five.  In fact Stella and Doug basically grew up together, so it is no wonder that Stella seems so devoted. He is indeed a surrogate family member. The other servants, Mildred and Cathleen also interact with the family, and these "downstairs" characters have their own dynamic interplay.

Shades of Chekov's The Cherry Orchard reverberate in the play, family coming together over an estate, a subtle drama with the sorrows and desires of ordinary people inextricably culminating in a denouement the audience can feel coming, and yet the characters are left dazed, staring blankly at the audience as the lights fade.  The exception is the one realist in the group, interestingly known as "Son," actually Stella's grandson, the only person in the family with some college education, who manages the estate, dolls out "advances" to his alcoholic and philandering Uncle Lewis and the demanding and avaricious Aunt Mary Jo on their shares of the estate. Son's own mother, Lucille, is Stella's "good" child, the perfect foil for the others.  Son fully knows what financial shambles the estate is in.  Although the signs of decay in their Texas town are omnipresent as well, to varyingly degrees the characters delusionally pin their hopes on a financial reversal from leasing their land for oil exploration.

There are hints that the sins of Stella's long dead husband and her progenitors shadow the family.   Stella says to Lucille. "Your father was a sinner -- he fathered children all up and down this county, black and white.  I warned him he'd be struck down right in his bed of iniquity, but he never was.  He died just as peaceful...," Lucille interrupting, saying "He didn't die peaceful, Mama.  He was in great pain when he died."  Stella replies, "Well he was in his own bed being cared for by his family.  I despised him, you know."

Another telling exchange is between Son, and the family, regarding how the estate came into being, Stella in denial.  Son remembers when he was a student a classmate accused him of  having "a blue belly just like your Yankee great-grandfather" -- a carpetbagger.  They go back and forth recounting the story, Son always referring to his great grandfather, Stella always correcting him saying great-great-grandfather, Son saying that "he stole land right and left by destroying legal records in the courthouse" and Stella protesting "He didn't steal the land. He didn't steal anything.... And my daddy told me that his daddy told him that you could buy land here for a dollar-fifty an acre, and people were abandoning their plantations because they couldn't make a living on them without their slaves, and he saved his money and bought as much land as he could, and that makes up our estate."  One never knows the complete story, but this exchange, which is as humorous as it is revealing, leads to the inevitability of the unfolding drama.

And so this bewildered and torn southern family tries to come to grips with its predicament.  They've been accustomed to a life on the dole and now the light of reality is at the end of their fictive tunnel.  The 5,000 acre estate is no longer productive, but a burden, taxes and expenses rising while revenue diminishes.

This is a production well worth seeing, a play by one of our most prolific playwrights having written more than fifty, Dividing the Estate being his last one before he died at the age of 92. Horton Foote also adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen for which he won an Academy Award.  A truly remarkable playwright.   

And while it is so often referred to as a "comedy" these generally are not belly laughs, but rather, a chortle here and a titter there as we recognize ourselves and members of our own families in Foote's characters. As Hayes says: "You have to have the honesty before you find the comedy."

According to Hayes, he purposely chose his cast mostly from actors that have performed at Dramaworks before, or have worked together in other venues as it was important for them to quickly develop a chemistry -- like a real family.  In fact, extensive readings and discussions of the play among the cast preceded the technical blocking and rehearsals even though there were only 3-1/2 weeks to bring the production together.  And, indeed, the cast coalesces and you feel that this is family and although set in 1987, as relevant today.

Foote's regional Texas dialogue is lively, lots of give and take between the actors, so the play moves at a good pace, and director Hayes takes full advantage of the script, and the actors -- the largest cast assembled to date at any Dramaworks production -- shine in their roles. 

(Back Row) (LtoR) Natalia Coego, Rob Donohoe, Gretchen Porro, Leah Sessa, Gregg Weiner, Margery Lowe, Elizabeth Dimon, John Archie, Avery Sommers, & Deltoiya Goodman
(Front Row) (LtoR) Kenneth Kay, Kim Cozort, & Mary Stout photo credit :  Alicia Donela
These are all pros and it is hard to single out any one performance.  The interplay between Stella (Mary Stout) and her very different (but dependent) children, Lewis (Rob Donohoe), Mary Jo (Kim Cozort), and Lucille (Elizabeth Dimon), reveal well worn hurts, and expectations.  The "help," Doug (John Archie), Mildred (Avery Sommers), and Cathleen (Deltoiya Goodman)  have their own conflicts, and interaction with the family, many amusing, always touching. Bob (Kenneth Kay), Mary Jo's distraught husband, is now bankrupt, visiting from Houston with their two spoiled generation X children, Emily (Gretchen Porro) and Sissie (Leah Sessa).  Son (Gregg Weiner) is now engaged to Pauline (Margery Lowe), a schoolteacher, who tries to introduce news of the world into the family, with no success.  And finally, there is the teenager Irene (Natalia Coego), a waitress at the local "Whataburger" who, with great hilarity is introduced by Lewis towards the end of the play, as his beau.  The family jokes that soon they'll all be working at Whataburger until Pauline chimes in, "That's what they say America is becoming, you know, a service economy."  Indeed, "you have to have the honesty before you find the comedy."

We had a special treat weeks before the production, visiting Dramaworks' 7,000 square foot shop where their scenery is designed, made, assembled, and then eventually disassembled.  It starts with a model of the set, in this case an old fashioned living room and dining room, with a stairway to the bedrooms, but well-kept, upscale, one that hints at the past glory days of the Gordon estate.  The model is to scale and then the set is built to fit the stage. The scenic design by Jeff Modereger is a perfect showcase.
The model set
The model set from above
The actual stage set

The costume design is by Brian O'Keefe, and lighting design by Ron Burns.

Dramaworks lovingly transforms Foote's work into memorable, fun theatre.