You know immediately, even before Horton Foote's gently warm 1989 comedy Dividing the Estate begins, what the characters want — it's that Gordon house, of course, a big, rich old character all by itself. Designed and sumptuously appointed with loving perfection by Jeff Cowie, it boasts an oriental rug that's the largest carpet this side of River Oaks. The chesterfield sofa is plumped like a courtesan, the refined Queen Anne dining chairs scream old money, and there are not one but two Dutch chandeliers overhead. The mahogany balustrade gleams with polish, as the light, conjured by Rui Rita, caresses the house by flooding in through the broad front door with its banging screen, or softens as it flows in the side windows through taut drapes. Who wouldn't want this house?
Matriarch Stella (the grand Elizabeth Ashley), feeble and living on not-quite-remembered-correctly memories, knows there's something in the air — and it's not the scent of magnolias. It's the stench of progress, and she's at a loss how to deal with it. The family house no longer stands proud in town but is encroached upon by noisy highways and fast-food joints. Times are changing fast in Foote's fictional Harrison, Texas. The acres of prime Gordon farmland lie fallow and can't command high prices in today's dwindling market, even if Stella did want to sell any of it, which she definitely does not. She wants to share, not divide.
Stella lives in the big house with her grown, no-account son Lewis (James Black), widowed daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Lucille's son, Son (Devon Abner), who manages the estate and doles out loans when Stella's in a forgiving mood. Son's fiancée Pauline (Maggie Lacey) teaches high school in town and is a font of environmental arcanery and soft-headed liberalism. On the payroll and also living on the property are the doddering retainer Doug (Roger Robinson), housekeeper Mildred (Pat Bowie) and her go-getter daughter Cathleen (Keiana Richárd).
Money is tight and getting tighter. So when Lewis begs for another loan on his future earnings from the estate to pay off a blackmailer, the stage is ripe for the entire family to gather, talk, reminisce, plot, collide and make us laugh. Married daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter), a whirlwind of stiff knees, frozen smiles and flailing arms, arrives from Houston. With her are glad-handing husband Bob (James DeMarse) and their immensely spoiled daughters Emily and Sissie (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance).
One of Foote's most clearly, and wickedly, defined portraits, Mary Jo loves her debt-ridden lifestyle and sees no good reason why it shouldn't continue. She immediately picks away at her family about "dividing the estate." She wants to get the maximum out of the precarious situation, whatever can be salvaged. Naturally, what she assumes to be a treasure trove turns out, with typically Foote flourish, to be worth not much at all, once taxes are taken care of, loans refinanced, mortgages paid. It's too late for them to make amends, to become whole; the world they've known for generations has left the Gordons far behind.
But, wait, it's not such a sad song, even though greedy Mary Jo will pray every night for an oil strike on the property. This is Foote's funniest play, despite two deaths that bring the family a bit of fleeting sadness. Within swathes of gentle conversation, of times long past and fondly recalled, he depicts the rapacious Gordons with a kind of hallowed benediction. Life flows around them. He loves these rascals and immediately draws us into their world.
They're all damaged goods, battered by life and not ever fully realizing what has hit them or why. In this old-fashioned, well-made play (directed with self-effacement by Michael Wilson, who staged the premiere and then its Broadway revival, with pretty much the same cast as here), there are no villains, just mismatched priorities, minor peccadilloes and sweet memories of more tender times. The Gordons are rapacious and out for money, no doubt about it, but they're so sweet at telling each other about their deceptions and outright greed, you can't help but admire them. The Hubbards from The Little Foxes have been sprinkled with pixie dust.
At two hours, the slight play begins to repeat, but when the tenacious Gordons agree to a solution to their money problems, all our smiles quickly return. The actors lap up Foote's warm sentiments like the richest cream in town. That grand old house might evade the wrecker's ball yet, which leaves everybody, including the audience, in a very good mood indeed.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events