By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
It’s never an easy subject matter to discuss within the family circle, but death is an inevitability. Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate not only begs the question, but deals with the practicalities when death intercedes before estate planning has been properly effected.
The time is set in 1987 in the town of Harrison, Texas, just after the big oil bust that sent shock waves through the industry.
The matriarch of the family, Stella Gordon (Brenda Currin), is content to maintain the status quo, which means she is in charge, allowing her grandson, Son (Curtis Billings), to run the spread and maintain the large home at which all the family members reside.
A small contingent of domestics also occupy the home. One in particular, Doug (Harold X. Evans), has been a part of the household as a small child ever since his dad was killed in an accident with a bull. He is so aged now that his duties have been taken over by Cathleen (Shelbi Young) and Mildred (Carol Sutton), who is also getting on in years.
Son is conflicted between serving his mom Lucille (Mary Pauley) and her desire that he stay in his present capacity overseeing the family property and pleasing his new fiancée Pauline (Beth Bartley), who desperately wants to fit in with the family, but also wants to have a life with him.
Stella’s ne’er-do-well son Lewis (Carl Palmer) is restless and like his other sibling Mary Jo (Wendy Miklovic), considers that maybe the time is ripe to parcel the land out to all the siblings so that they can inherit what their father had left for them prior to their mother’s passing.
Mary Jo’s husband Bob (Silas Cooper) concurs, especially knowing that without an almost immediate infusion of cash into his coiffers, he, his wife and their two daughters Emily (Megan Barrios) and Sissie (Elizabeth McCoy) will face financial ruin.
This is the dysfunctional Gordon family prior to the arrival of the Grim Reaper and Bob, whose motivations seem spurious, is the only one to point out that if no financial plan is put into place, the consequences could be disastrous.
The cast for this regional premiere directed by Maxwell Williams is strong and the play, which was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play in 2009, has moments of tenderness and humor.
It seems the funniest moments take place after death intercedes and the practicalities of saving the homestead and family hearth set in.
While this play could have devolved into a shouting match between factions, it shows how families sometimes have to improvise and work together rather than fight one another.
Pauley’s character fights for the estate to remain intact and under Son’s control, while Bob and Mary Jo argue that it should be divided among the heirs. When Lewis admits to an affair with Irene Ratliff (Irene Ratliff), a ridiculously young fast food worker at the nearby Whataburger, the family must endure yet another hardship, although this one sparks many more laughs than tears.
While Billings plays his central role as deliberate and understated, Miklovic, on the other hand, is a genuine scene stealer as the play draws to a close and Mary Jo recognizes her life in Houston, her marriage and her relationships with her other family members are all forever changed.
Dividing the Estate might best be retitled Saving the Family. When the play ends, Foote shows us there is still room for a laugh or two or even a tear to shed over this family. It is a family that despite its difference poses universal themes of acceptance and love in challenging times.
Dividing the Estate continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays. Sunday matinees are at 2:00 p.m. For more information call 504-522-2081 or click here.