Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dividing the Estate

DIVIDING THE ESTATE, a lesson in good Southern storytelling

Humans are storytellers. We tell tales to set patterns for our cultures, to have family continuity, to create histories and retain traditions.

In the US American culture, some of the best story tellers are southern. This may well be because of the sense of community, the large African American population whose traditions include oral story telling, and the commonality of a unified history concerning slavery, class standing and privilege. Writers like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty and Harper Lee come to mind.

The story telling southern tradition also gave birth to such playwrights as Lillian Hellman, Alfred Uhry, Tennessee Williams and Horton Foote. Foote's DIVIDING THE ESTATE is now being staged by Ensemble Theatre.

Foote is at his best when he is dissecting the emotional dynamics of southern townsfolk. His DIVIDING THE ESTATE is Foote at his writing best. He creates a tale of a formerly wealthy and landed family, with a questionable history, whose privilege is evaporating in the change of the economic climate. Family squabbling and squawking emerge as the Gordon clan realizes that life, as they know it, is quickly being extinguished. Much like the message of Chekov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Foote's subjects are mostly obtuse to the changes that are taking place, often living in a fantasy world of their own design.

Its Harrison, Texas. Three generations of malcontents pass the time in Southern style, drinking iced tea and hard liquor, gossiping, sparring and infighting over money and life styles. Interestingly, though the play takes place in 1987, it is relevant today.

The Gordons, ruled by Stella, a mentally failing octogenarian matriarch, are totally unprepared for the reality of an uncertain future when plunging real estate values and an unexpected tax bill have a negative impact on the family fortune. Stella's children--predatory Mary Jo, complacent Lucille, and alcoholic Lewis--engage in a debate about whether or not they should divide the estate while their mother is still alive in order to ensure themselves financial independence. When reality hits, all the pretenses go flying out the window.

Ensemble's production, under the watchful eye of Sarah May, effectively milks Foote's very southern context. Accents are on target, pacing generally good, ideas develop clearly, and the major characters are well textured. Forced to move a huge cast around the postage stamped Brook's theatre stage, is a major chore, which is not always accomplished, especially when we are supposed to be observing a grand, though tired, southern mansion. There is often a feeling of confinement which doesn't fit the message. There are also line stumbles which, hopefully, during the run of the show disappear.

Strong performances are given by Bernice Bolek as Stella, the matriarch who refuses to accept change is a comin'. Robert Hawkes, as the alcoholic Lewis, walks the fine line between reality and drunkenness with finesse. Anne McEvoy makes daughter Lucille a real person, who is one of the few who grasps reality. Valerie Young is so successful as the self-centered Mary Jo, that I wanted to jump on stage and, in good old southern fashion, give her a “womp upside her h'ad.” Gregory White is compelling as Doug, the 90-something year old servant. The rest of the cast varies from proficient to acceptable.

Given the constraints of the minute stage size, scenic designer Ron Newell justifiably goes for grand furniture rather than massive set.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like a well-written story about fading southern gentility, filled with some laughs and clear characterizations, you'll enjoy Horton Foote's DIVIDING THE ESTATE.