Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Long Division

January 30, 2012

Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley Photo: Henry DiRocco 2012
It was a particularly good weekend to be in San Diego. Not just because of San Diego Opera’s very good production of Salome, but also because I got to see The Old Globe’s excellent production of Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, which is running through February 12. The play comes largely intact with the ensemble cast that helped Mr. Foote get another Tony nomination for best new play in 2009. The cast features two of his own children, Hallie Foote as Mary Jo and Horton Foote, Jr. as Mary Jo’s ne’er-do-well older brother Lewis. Of course, Foote’s family most likely has nothing on the Gordons of Harrison, TX, circa 1987 as depicted in the play. The three adult Gordon children, Lewis, Mary Jo, and Lucille have all gathered at their family’s palatial if somewhat sputtering estate for a dinner at which perennial discussions of money and the fate of the family’s land in the not so distant future are again rehashed. The family matriarch, Stella Gordon, played by the simply incandescent Elizabeth Ashley, seems to change her mind nearly minute to minute about what she wants for the remainder of her life and afterwards. She’s also a soft touch enamored with her memories of the past, and easily persuaded into bad decisions by her children over the objections of the estate's caretakers Lucille and her own child, referred to as Son, who are striving to keep everything financially afloat.

But money stressors are all around as Mary Jo’s husband and children find themselves in increasingly deep water in Houston while Lewis finds himself ever in debt through some combination of gambling and alcohol. Foote takes a darkly comic view of these events and it isn’t long before the thin ice everyone is skating on opens up cavernous cracks as death starts to call for more than one member of the extended family. All of this is reminiscent of Tracey Letts’ landmark August: Osage County but with a far more restrained and subtle tack toward family dynamics. The Gordons may raise their voice, but things never descend into outright violence. Of course, Foote has thrown in more than a dash of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard here as well as the crumbling and inevitable economic realities loom large in the minds of the audience if not the Gordons themselves who are unable to wake long enough to save themselves from either their own greed or from wallowing in a bygone dream of themselves. The critique of the American dream is still front and center for Foote, if not always as brutally scathing as it is in August.

But the hint of nostalgic melancholy gives Dividing the Estate its unique sensibility. It is always a very funny play, but the expansive and beautiful homestead set can do little to disguise the socially claustrophobic family relationships playing out within its walls. Michael Wilson’s direction makes room for everyone in this large ensemble to shine but Ms. Foote and Ms. Ashley are given particularly juicy bits and understandably draw more attention. So while the show may not be a revolution in theater, it does promise for a very fun and hopefully hugely successful run in San Diego. See it before you lose the chance to.


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