Where there's a will, there's a way for greedy family members to fight about who gets what and how much. In Horton Foote's internecine 1989 comedy Dividing the Estate, members of the Gordon family also want to know how soon they'll get their mitts on their mama's money. The sooner the better, as most of the Gordons of Harrison, Texas, circa 1987, are up to their eye sockets in gambling debts, bad investments and scandalous affairs with underage Whataburger counter girls.
In the Dallas Theater Center's get-down funny production at the Wyly Theatre, Foote's play twangs like the strings on Willie Nelson's guitar. Every line sings with the sound of real Texanese and every character will remind you of someone you know (and probably squabbled with) in your own family. This is comedy that comes from somewhere; probably from years Foote spent eavesdropping on people just like this in his hometown of Wharton (near Houston). The playwright doesn't send them up, the way a British writer might have. Foote loved these folks, flaws and all.
What a great show to anchor the area-wide Foote Festival, going on at nearly all the major theater companies in Dallas and Fort Worth through early May. The cast of Estate, directed by Joel Ferrell, is superb. Actress June Squibb, whom you'll recognize from her decades of character roles on film and TV, was imported to play the matriarch, Stella Gordon, an 80-plus widow with a will of iron and no intention of shuffling off her mortal coil anytime soon. Wielding her cane like a Ninja weapon, cutting off her offspring mid-sentence, Squibb's Stella is a pit viper in a polka-dotted frock.
Over the play's two acts, Stella's grown children slither in to suggest and then demand outright that their mother go ahead and carve up what was once the family's thriving cotton plantation. The kids want to sell to developers or lease acreage to oil and gas outfits and then share the spoils. They're shocked to learn they've overestimated the potential worth of the Gordon holdings, however. With much of the land already sold off and replaced by gas stations and fast-food emporia—blights on what was once, by their accounts, a quaint little Texas burg—the Gordon heirs have chipped away at the cash reserves till there's almost nothing left.
Each sibling has a sob story. Alcoholic 40-something son Lewis (former DTC company member Kurt Rhoads) has borrowed 200 grand from his part of any inheritance and needs another $10,000, and quick, to clear up a little trouble with his teenage girlfriend. Blowsy middle-aged daughter Mary Jo (Nance Williamson, Rhoads' real-life wife) has gone through 300 grand and could use another mil to get her husband Bob (Kieran Connolly) out of bankruptcy and to underwrite a lavish wedding for one daughter (Kristin Frantz, the cast's weakest link, but only by a little) and maybe a trip to Europe for the other (Emily Habeck).
The only decent Gordons are widowed daughter Lucille (Collin College prof Gail Cronauer) and her boy, Son (DTC company member Matthew Gray). They live with and see after Stella in the pile of bricks and Ionic columns that represent the last remnants of the family's glory days, when cotton and bank balances were high. Son oversees the family farm and gets by on a $400-a-month allowance from Stella, which even in the late 1980s was a paltry wage.
Son needs a raise and maybe a house and life away from his mother and Big Mama because he's engaged to pretty schoolteacher Pauline (Lynn Blackburn). At two sprawling, oft-interrupted family dinners with the Gordons, Pauline serves as a plaintive voice from the outside world, offering factlets about toxic sludge, bilingual education and the differences between the Vietnamese and Taiwanese immigrants who've swelled Harrison's population, much to the distress of many Gordons.
But that's not all. The household also includes 92-year-old servant Doug (Akin Babatunde), who's lived and worked on the Gordon place since he was 5. He's so comfortable around the family he flops down on the good furniture, declaring "I'm TAH-yud." Heck, he's so big, he practically IS furniture. Cook and maid Mildred (DTC'er Liz Mikel) and her helper Cathleen (Tiffany Mann) trundle platters of ham and bowls of biscuits to the yards-long dinner table and occasionally drop a line or two that let us and the family know they're not all that subservient either.
Two characters die in this scenario. There are two post-mortem after-proms in the Gordon living room, where talk of the estate and its division rarely is offset by actual expressions of grief. And like real family gatherings, and because Foote had such a fine ear for authentic conversational flow, topics rock-skip from this thang to that in every scene. A line like "Why was he cleanin' his gun on his weddin' night?" makes perfect sense preceded by circuitous talk about spouses who died under suspicious circumstances.
Huge, rolling waves of laughter sweep through the audience during this show, and not just for what's being said onstage. It's how this marvelous ensemble of actors says it all, and how delicately they handle Foote's well-placed pauses, that make the two hours of Dividing the Estate such a treat. Squibb, Rhoads, Williamson, Gray, Babatunde, Blackburn and Cronauer, working un-miked, play it big but keep it real. It's like a throwback to a bygone age to see a great actress such as Liz Mikel relegated to a Hattie McDaniel role as a uniformed maid, but she gives Mildred some of the same seething venality as the money-grubbing kids. Told that she won't get her share of what's in the will for a couple more years, she stomps away in a huff, saying "Good Lord, probate! It's always something!"
Director Ferrell, a DTC company member and gifted choreographer, moves all these actors around the large, thrust-stage configuration at the Wyly (on a gigantic set by John Arnone) with an eye for where the audience's focus will shift at any given moment. A crying jag by one of the characters erupts way upstage, "outside" the walls of the mansion, which is an inspired touch. And when the Whataburger girl (Katherine Bourne) makes her late second-act entrance, Ferrell places her downstage, with her back to much of the audience, so that we can clearly see the faces of each and every Gordon as they react to the babbling of this teenage interloper. Brilliant stuff and it only enhances Foote's comedy.
Other plays will come to mind as you watch and listen to Dividing the Estate: Shakespeare's King Lear, Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, even Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which debuted in New York the same year Estate did (2007).
When it comes to heaps of money, big families, especially Southern ones, often find that drama is the uninvited guest at major family functions. How brilliant of Horton Foote, now being celebrated by Texas audiences who can hear themselves in how he wrote, to bring humor to the table, too.