Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote, and Elizabeth Ashley
in Dividing The Estate
(© James Leynse)
Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote, and Elizabeth Ashley
in Dividing The Estate
(© James Leynse)
Dividing the Estate is going to surprise anyone expecting a typical Horton Foote play. This work, making its New York premiere at Primary Stages, is not the little, quiet and delicate dissection of Southern life and the people who live it that we've come to expect from this celebrated playwright. Instead, it's a southern gothic comedy about family and avarice that is full of well-earned belly-laughs. Who knew Foote could be this funny?

As the title suggests, the playwright takes us to that universal world of family members at their most venal. It's 1987 and Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), an elderly Southern matriarch, dominates a family that lives off the income from her 5,000-acre Texas estate. None of her middle-aged children has actually ever held a job. Lewis (Gerald McRaney) is a womanizing bachelor with a bad gambling habit; Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) is a housewife who spends money well beyond her means and is teaching her two daughters, Emily (Jenna Dare Paulin) and Sissy (Nicole Lowrance) to do the same; and Lucille (Penny Fuller) is a widow who lives with her mother. Meanwhile, Lucille's son, called Son (Devon Abner), is devoted to the estate and actually runs the business, but with little compensation for his efforts.

The play begins with news that the family will be coming together for a dinner at Stella's home (tastefully designed by Jeff Cowie). It's the first time in at least five months since they've all been together, and Stella expects that the major topic of conversation will be dividing the estate so that her kids can get their hands on their money now rather than when she dies. She is, of course, right. In fact, the money-asking begins even before the full assemblage of the family can even take place. Subplots abound, but they all have a tangential connection to both the value of the estate and the value in the relationships that have been forged there over time, particularly between Stella and her 92-year old servant, Doug (played with affectionate crankiness by Arthur French).

The biggest surprise in Dividing the Estate is that Foote is clearly having some fun with the work of Tennessee Williams. Ashley's character is named Stella, but her character is more like a female version of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than the neurotic heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire, while Mary Jo's two girls might well be prettier, more grown-up versions of the no-neck monsters from Cat.

Director Michael Wilson stages the play not only with an emphasis on the comedy but with a feeling for the humanity of his characters. Ashley embraces her senior status and lords over her clan with her deep, intimidating voice. McRaney is a standout as the troubled Lewis, while Fuller is as delightful as she is poignant as the widow who serves at her mother's behest.

Foote, a fixture in her father's plays, is hilarious in her desperation as the most grasping of the three children, while Abner (Hallie Foote's husband in real-life) plays the responsible grandson with a charming calm that is wise and winning. Only Maggie Lacey, who portrays Son's fiancé Pauline, a local schoolteacher, suffers from direction that makes her perky to a less-than-credible extreme.

David C. Woolard costumes the cast with just the right degree of Texas-sized importance. But that's just one of the parts that makes Dividing the Estate work so well as a whole.