DIVIDING THE ESTATE: Wonderful Play, Wonderfully Done

DIVIDING-THE-ESTATE-PosterHorton Foote’s Dividing the Estate is in the great tradition of inheritance literature.

God initiated the genre when He told Abraham of Ur, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” His son Isaac initiated the trope of squabbling over inheritance by giving the blessing to Jacob rather than the rightful heir, Esau.

King David provided the conditions for inheritance, “For evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the Lord, They shall inherit the earth. But the meek shall inherit the earth, And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. “

The Biblical trope has dominated all dramatic stories of inheritance ever since, especially the great drama of William Shakespeare, King Lear.

Horton Foote, America’s Chekhov, wrote through a life and vision steeped in the Biblical world view. The Raven Theatre’s beautiful production of Foote’s last play, Dividing the Estate,  acknowledges Foote’s roots with lovely pre-show selections of the great male Southern Gospel Quartets which dominated Christian music decades ago.

The music leads us to the Gordon family of 1987 Harrison, Texas. The Gordon clan is presided over by the matriarch Stella (Marssie Mencotti), an aging widow, fighting off the attempts of her three children – Mary Jo (JoAnn Montemurro), in cahoots with her bankrupt realtor husband Bob (Jon Steinhagen) and their two obnoxious daughters Emily (Kathryn Acosta) and Sissie (Angela Sandall); widow Lucille (Millie Hurley-Spencer), and her son, called merely “Son” (Tim Martin), a widower and manager of the estate, plus his fiancée, the schoolteacher Pauline (Eliza Stoughton); and her final child, the town drunkard, Lewis (Ron Wells) who has been messing with teenage Irene Ratliff (Hillary Horvath) — to receive their inheritance, like the Prodigal Son, before their time, before their mother dies.

Living apart from, but deeply involved in, the family’s life are the servants – maid Cathleen (BrittneyLove Smith), a part-time community college student; Mildred (Shariba Rivers), the family cook; and Doug, the 91 year old family retainer, who loves to recall the family’s golden days, especially the day Miss Stella was born.

A good drama is set on a special occasion.  King Lear is set near St Stephen’s Day and is the day the king divides his kingdom. A Doll’s House is set at Christmas, and is the day Nora’s miracle doesn’t come, forcing her to leave her husband. Dividing the Estate contains many special occasions: it is the occasion for Son to introduces Pauline to his family; it is the day Doug drops dead; it is the time Bob reveals his bankruptcy and the loss of his home; it is the occasion for Son to quit as estate manager; it is the time for Stella to die and have her will read. Finally, it is the time for the family to, first, discover that there is no financial inheritance for any but Cathleen and Mildred, and, second, to discover that, due to their financial situations, they must all live under the same roof for the foreseeable future.

The Raven Theatre’s production is simply stunning in just about every way. Director Cody Estle has assembled a top-rate design team and choreographed a selfless cast of very talented actors into a dynamic acting ensemble. Mr. Estle uses his considerable, but subtle, imagination solely in the service of Horton Foote’s play.

Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set is so perfect in detail and overall shape, that it could have been a Thorne Miniaturte Room on loan from the Art Institute made large. Costume Designer Kate Murphy’s costumes let one know the essence of each personality even before they open their mouths. Everything from hair styles to socks, pinpoints  uniqueness of character, yet allows family members to seem alike in some mysterious way. Julia Carusillo’s properties and set dressings are likewise detailed, appropriate, and meaningful in telling the story of this selfish, bold, troubled, and immodest family.

While all the actors merit extensive congratulations, a few stand out. J.J. McCormick’s Doug communicates age and senility without a trace of cliché. His character emerges as the wise patriarch of this collection of intractable people. Likewise, Marssie Montemurro’s Stella captures the character’s steel grace  with both consistency and variety. Millie Hurley-Spencer, Joann Montemurro, and Ron Wells, as her three children, reveal the variety of siblings which can arise from one set of parents – one passive – aggressive, one simply aggressive, and one just passive. And they do it all without falling into the temptation to play Foote’s characters as Southern Gothic oddities.

In the course of the action, the family joins together to sing Anna L Waring’s gospel hymn, “In Heavenly Love Abiding”:

In heav’nly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear;
And safe is such confiding,
For nothing changes here.
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid,
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed?

Wherever He may guide me,
No want shall turn me back;
My Shepherd is beside me,
And nothing can I lack.
His wisdom ever waketh,
His sight is never dim;
He knows the way He taketh,
And I will walk with Him.

Green pastures are before me,
Which yet I have not seen;
Bright skies will soon be o’er me,
Where darkest clouds have been.
My hope I cannot measure,
My path to life is free;
My Savior has my treasure,
And He will walk with me.

Though green pastures may be before this family, at the end of the play they are forced to live together in Sartre’s “hell is other people.”

Their Savior does have their treasure, their inheritance, but He will not let them have it until a certain condition is met:

Christ says, “Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth.”

Living together may bring these immodest characters the meekness necessary to inherit the Kingdom. Horton Foote reminds us, in this lovely production of an important play, that, until then, our inheritance will be nothing but what we reap – the wind.

Comments are disabled for this post