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Dividing the Estate: The Ties that Bind

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

How people deal with adversity is the bread and butter of theatre, in good times as well as bad. As Mel Brooks said in that famous 1961 routine, The 2,000 Year Old Man, with Carl Reiner, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

(Left to right) Sharon Kay White as Mary Jo, Rachel Fowler as Lucille, and Anne Oberbroeckling as Stella Gordon
(L to R) Sharon Kay White as Mary Jo,
Rachel Fowler as Lucille,
and Anne Oberbroeckling as Stella Gordon
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
When Horton Foote set Dividing the Estate in 1987, the U.S. and the world had just suffered the second greatest stock market crash in history, though by the time the show premiered at the McCarter Theatre (Princeton, NJ) in 1989, the financial debacle was a fading memory for most.

Two decades later, history reversed itself, as Foote's daughter, Hallie, recalls in a recent phone conversation: "When people saw the play when we first did it at Primary Stages (off-Broadway) in 2007, the economy was still on the upswing, and then in 2008, it was a very different time—we were getting ready to go to the Booth with the Lincoln Center Theatre Company—we were in the throes of this plummeting stock market; the economy was about to collapse; there was this great uncertainty, and here we were doing this play, a very funny play; but it has undertones, a darkness."

What could be funny about losing your net worth? Well, as Brooks said, if it's happening to someone else-in this case, the Gordon family of Harrison, Texas—it's funny.

(Left to right) Rachel Fowler as Lucille and Anne Oberbroeckling as Stella Gordon
(L to R) Rachel Fowler as Lucille
and Anne Oberbroeckling as Stella Gordon
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
As it turns out, what is funny is not the dire economic straits, but what they bring out in the people who are affected by them—and the Gordon's have plenty of idiosyncrasies to go around. As director A. Lee Massaro sees it, "The play is really driven by the characters and where they're rooted. It takes place in the '80's, and it's pertinent to our current situation, but that's peripheral to the core issues of the play."

In other words, it's the characters and their behaviors, not the circumstances, that define the drama. This is particularly true in the work of Horton Foote, who is known for his well-drawn characters and down-to-earth dialogue. As Hallie recalls:

"That comes from listening to his family. They'd all be sitting around talking and he'd often be the youngest person in the room. He didn't mind being around adults; it was almost like he was invisible to them, so he heard all kinds of things. And then he had that kind of memory that stored everything; so eventually, through his own filter—it's always your point-of-view, not a verbatim accounting—it became his version of what he observed, how it impressed him; and then he wrote about it."

And write he did, garnering two Oscars for To Kill a Mockingbird (1963, adapted screenplay) and Tender Mercies (1983, original screenplay), the Pulitzer Prize for drama for The Young Man from Atlanta (1995), and an Emmy for his adaptation of William Faulkner's Old Man (1997, Outstanding Writing of a Miniseries or Special).

In Dividing the Estate, as with all some of his plays, Foote sets the story in Harrison, Texas, a fictional town based on his home town of Wharton, Texas, where folks still speculate on the real life models for his stories. But as Hallie notes, her father liberally invoked his poetic license: "He would combine things, hear a story, think about writing about it, then not being able to write about it, and then he'd write about it in a different way."

(Left to right) Sharon Kay White as Mary Jo and Rachel Fowler as Lucille
(L to R) Sharon Kay White as Mary Jo and
Rachel Fowler as Lucille
Photo: P. Switzer ©2013
As the aging matriarch of the Gordon clan, Stella, approaches the next life, the family gathers to debate how best to leverage what remains of the value of their once grand family estate, hit hard by the vanishing money supply and the markets that collapsed in its wake.

Stella's daughter (Lucille) and son (Lewis) still live in the big house, with their longtime servant (Doug), while Lucille's daughter (Mary Jo), her husband (Bob), and young adult children (Emily and Sissie) come to visit from Houston.

Death, both impending and de facto, intervenes, heightening the family dysfunction. Add a contemporary economic meltdown, Southern social mores, and some sugary dialect, and you're in for an evening of heartfelt laughs and multifaceted realizations.

The Arvada Center's production of Dividing the Estate runs through May 26th. For more information: 720-898-7200 or www.arvadacenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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