Dividing the Estate at the Alley a Smart, Funny Crowd-Pleaser

The set-up:

Our American Chekov, elegiac and wistful Horton Foote (Pulitzer Prize-winning Young Man From Atlanta, The Trip to Bountiful, Oscar-winning screenplay adaptations of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies) isn't known for comedy, but this is the one: a smart and funny crowd-pleaser.

The execution:

Matriarch Stella (the grand Elizabeth Ashley), feeble and living on memories, senses 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 great family house, lovingly appointed and detailed by designer Jeff Cowie and infused in sunny Texas light by Rita Rui, no longer stands proud in town but is encroached upon by noisy highways and fast food joints. Times are changing, fast. The acres of prime farm land can't command high prices in today's dwindling market, even if Stella would want to sell any of it, which she definitely does not. She wants to share, not divide. Money is tight, and getting tighter. Her greedy family wants to divide. Now.

So they gather: no-count son Lewis (James Black), oblivious widowed daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller), and her son, Son (Devon Abner), who manages the estate and doles out loans when Stella's in a forgiving mood. From Houston comes married daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter), a whirlwind of stiff knees, frozen smiles, and flailing arms.

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 forever. She wants to get the maximum out of the precarious situation. She wants 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. Foote transforms sentimental melodrama into genuine laughs.

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 at the Alley), 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 smile and laugh at them. The Hubbards from The Little Foxes have been sprinkled with pixie dust.

The verdict:

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, and we're left in a very good mood.

The play runs through October 30 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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