‘Dividing’ decisively good

by David Dixon

Courtesy of Henry Dirocco
Courtesy of Henry Dirocco

Spending time with an extended family is a relatable experience for almost everyone. It can be awkward because people are often so far removed from each other that it is hard to find common interests and values. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Horton Foote, plays on these uneasy relationships for big laughs in his play “Dividing the Estate.”

The year is 1987 and Stella Gordon (Elizabeth Ashley) is an elderly mother of three grown children: Lucille (Penny Fuller), Lewis (Horton Foote Jr.) and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote). The offspring all try to encourage Stella to divide her property before she passes away. The problem is the matriarch has no interest in doing so, knowing her kids mostly want the estate for selfish reasons.

The plot sounds like an intimate tragedy full of angry and disturbing dialogue. Leave it to director Michael Wilson as well as Horton Foote to make “Dividing the Estate” a comedy that finds the humor in confrontations. Even a person aggressively pushing a swinging door out of rage can be hilarious, because it feels so accurately realistic to the absurdness of life.

Retaining most of the cast from the Tony-nominated Broadway production, including two of the playwright’s children, “Dividing the Estate” features the kind of ensemble that gives quite a few memorable performances. Ashley is superb as the parent who is really the center of the show. Her effortless characterization is believable and her hysterically gruff attitude might have some audience members thinking about their own parents or grandparents.

Ashley does not play Stella as some kind of cliché senior citizen. Instead, Stella’s intentions behind avoiding talk of the estate make sense and her friendship with the equally cranky servant Doug (Roger Robinson) brings out a gentle side of her. Stella is as strong in these moving moments as she is in the hysterical ones.

Hallie Foote earned a Tony nomination for her work as Mary Jo, the younger and more selfish daughter. She is a force of explosive power; especially in a big scene that reveals the real reason for wanting her share of the estate. It is hard to completely sympathize with Mary Jo, but Hallie Foote makes her very entertaining to watch by letting her bottled-up fury run wild.

The only flaw with the production is the ending of Act I, which is slightly predictable. Be forewarned, there is a spoiler coming. By the time a character passes away in “Dividing the Estate,” the moment comes with very little shock, because there is an abundance of foreshadowing minutes before this happens. However, this plot “twist” takes very little away from the experience and Act II makes up for this by maintaining the humor from prior events and concluding with a delightfully ironic climax.

With “Dividing the Estate,” The Old Globe Theatre has started 2012 on a high note. It is another reminder of how stagecraft can be full of keen insight while still being consistently gut-busting.

Tickets and information about “Dividing the Estate” can be found at theoldglobe.org.