By JOHN DeMERS
For many years, the late Horton Foote was known as the “Chekhov of the South”; and if there were any Chekhovians other than me in the audience at the Alley last night, they’d know immediately why that was. Dividing the Estate, a production that was born for Broadway and has imported most of that cast, brings to the South (to a fictionalized version of Wharton, Texas, no less) much of what was funny, tender and bittersweet about Chekhov’s plays portraying the fading landed gentry of czarist Russia.
Another of Foote’s plays has been compared to the Russian’s Three Sisters, but Dividing the Estate is definitely The Cherry Orchard. An air of change and likely doom hangs over the Gordon family as their matriarch Stella, magnificently played by Elizabeth Ashley (who has a long history of greatness with Tennessee Williams roles as well), issues pronouncements about what will and won’t become of the family “fortune” after she’s gone, while 92-year-old servant Doug dodders about the house between stops to rest. As played by Roger Robinson, Doug is the South’s answer to Chekhov’s tired and near-senile serfs, who still did what they did but had no clue if they’d have a role in the new Russia forming around them.
Around these two aging emblems of the past, as in Chekhov, Foote has grouped at least two younger generations. Occasionally, especially early on, their ages and familial relationships are unclear, even with all those Deep South nicknames like “Brother,” “Sister” and of course “Sissie,” instead of their given names. Several characters are called “Mama,” including Stella’s daughter Mary Jo by her husband Bob. Families are all about how people are related to each other, but as in Russian dramas with their patronymics ending in “ich” and nicknames that all sound like “Misha” or “Sasha,” it can be hard to know who’s really on first.
The Alley production taking over every inch of the Hubbard Stage is a single, open complex of well-appointed rooms in the Gordon family’s mansion on 5,000 acres, which seems idyllic until we learn about other families dumping their land for much-needed cash and letting stores and fast-foot outlets clog the highway. There is much talk of Texas Gulf Coast weather, along with what seems Houston in the 1980s, complete with plummeting oil prices and a disastrous real estate depression. As further evidence of an otherwise unmentioned time, there’s amazement over new-sounding VCRs and glimpses of a very large cordless phone.
Still, what matters in Dividing the Estate is not what’s timely but what’s timeless. The reluctant fading of a ruling generation, the painful and often angry interplay of siblings, the resentment of a thousand slights from the past and the fear or a thousand new setbacks to come – all these and more are sure to come up whenever the South’s extended families get together, with alcohol or iced tea, with spouses and memories of those Texas exes. Foote looks into it all, going for laughs without having to work up a sweat, yet also embracing his characters and their numberless foibles with a literary edition of tough love.
All members of the cast from Broadway are convincing here, starting with the playwright’s own daughter Hallie Foote as Mary Jo and moving through James Demarse as her faltering real estate husband, Nicole Lowrance and Jenny Dare Paulin as their two daughters, and Maggie Lacy as Son’s school teacher-fiancee Pauline. Joining Robinson among the “help,” Pat Bowie as Mildred and Keiana Richard as young Cathleen bring their Broadway chops to the Alley stage. James Black is the only familiar Alley face in the crowd, making quick work of Louis, a.k.a. “Brother,” the family drunk who, we learn slowly, is having an affair with a teenager who works at the local What-a-Burger.
As directed at a lively yet loving pace by Michael Wilson, Dividing the Estate is one delightful evening of theater. There are many ghosts that inhabit a stage whenever the house lights go down. And when the late Horton Foote is serving up delicious lines along with what the South loves to call “dinn-uh,” I’m convinced that Anton Chekhov has to be one of them.
Photos by Jann Whaley: (top) Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley; (bottom) Maggie Lacey and Devon Abner.