You know that guy who does the voiceovers in the Whataburger commercials? The smugly folksy one? The staff at Dallas Theater Center should get him to do the robo-calls that they'll inevitably send out to promote the area premiere of Dividing the Estate, the centerpiece of the Horton Foote Festival.
He has the perfect tone to set up what starts as a fairly conventional dramedy about a family at odds, but ends on an unexpected and hysterical note. We knew Foote could tell engaging stories about real people, but who knew he could be so funny while landing one straight in the gut?
The Whataburger reference comes late in the play and there's a good reason why the Gordon clan is so horrified when it happens. It has nothing to with the fact that by the late 1980s, when this play is set, Foote's fictional town of Harrison, Texas, has grown enough to have a fast food chain. It apparently has a Sonic and McDonald's too, and although they're never mentioned, you can bet there's a Dairy Queen and a Wal-Mart. (Give it another 15 years and there's bound to be a Starbucks.)
Yep, as was warned 60 years earlier, by the characters in Foote's Talking Pictures, Harrison has not been immune to progress.
But despite all its benefits, progress also comes with side effects, such as selfishness, greed and desperation. Those are, in part, what will do the Gordons in.
Stella Gordon (June Squibb) is the matriarch who has lived in a large plantation-style house on 150 acres outside of Harrison all her life. She's up in years, but still feisty. That hasn't stopped her children—dutiful Lucille (Gail Cronauer), ne'er-do-well Lewis (Kurt Rhoads) and spoiled Mary Jo (Nance Williamson)—from plotting over who's going to get what when the time comes. After all, they've been living on the family's money all their lives.
At least Lucille and her adult son, called Son (Matthew Gray), who manages the estate, have lived and worked on the property for their share. It's a given that Son and his fiancée Pauline (Lynn Blackburn), a pretty teacher, will stay there and raise the next generation.
On the other hand, Lewis has always mooched off the estate, counting the unhatched chickens of the big payoff. As has Mary Jo and her real estate agent husband Bob (Kieran Connolly), and their daughters Emily (Emily Haback) and Sissie (Kristin Frantz), who all live in Houston but return regularly to stay in good favor. And then there's the domestic help, who stand to gain something as well: Mildred (Liz Mikel), Cathleen (Tiffany Mann) and the play's spiritual center, Doug (Akin Babatunde in a magnificent performance), who has worked for the Gordons for 87 years, since he was five.
Foote wrote the play in the '80s and it premiered in New Jersey in 1989, but it wasn't revisited until nearly 20 years later, opening off-Broadway in 2007 and transferring to Broadway in 2008. That cast included Foote's daughter Hallie (in a Tony-nominated performance) as Mary Jo.
Throughout his plays, Foote spent his life crafting the characters of Harrison. While many of them have gone on their own journeys of self-discovery, often in ways as sweet as the tea that flows from pitchers in Texas, they haven't served as a comment on the darker side of the human psyche as much as the Gordons do in Estate. Its setting, in one of the most gluttonous eras in America—the '80s—translates perfectly to the past five years, as corporate greed, a real estate crash and uncertainty in the oil and gas industry have kept us unable to, so far, steer off that path that leads to, well, nowhere worth being excited about.
This production, deftly directed by Joel Ferrell, is easily the most wholly successful show DTC has managed since it moved into the Wyly Theatre in the fall of 2009. Tony-winning scenic designer John Arnone gives us the massive structure of the front of the house, an old-fashioned monument to wealth, and cleverly renders the interior rooms on a thrust configuration, without resorting to realistic divisions of such a house. Costumer Claudia Stephens puts the characters in costumes that aren't necessarily definable by era, but rather by geography and character. At least not until Mary Jo and her girls show up, and those additions are appropriately garish.
The ensemble nails it, grounded by Squibb, with her steadfast and wise presence, a mellowed-out version of Barbara Stanwyck's character in Big Valley. Gray is better than ever (and that's saying something) and Blackburn is a delightful vision. Mikel has lots of stage business but not much to say, but still manages the funniest reaction and line near the end. Rhoads and Cronauer are both brilliantly heartbreaking in different ways. Williamson gets the benefit of the character that most represents the play's theme of excess and the inevitable downfall. She's hysterical, yet real, while skirting the outline of a cartoonish character.
Foote has written about the familial dynamic in different ways, but this portrait of squabbling siblings and a family falling apart rivals what we've seen from Eugene O'Neill's fractured dynasties. It certainly feels closer to reality than Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, another comedy of family dysfunction that was in New York at the same time as Estate. Never discount the power of humor to get at the heart of our deepest flaws.
As you're watching the other plays in the Foote Festival, notice recurring themes that are also folded into Estate, such as religion (his Methodists deride other Protestant affiliations; and the hymn "Rock of Ages" is a constant) and arm's-length relationships with Americans of different ethnic ancestry. Perhaps it would have been smarter for DTC to anchor this production as the final show to open in the fest, after we've seen the other characters go on their various physical and emotional journeys.
Foote has been criticized—and praised—for not taking more risks with his plays, for not experimenting as much with style and form as other playwrights with long and influential careers. While there was no questioning his genius before, Dividing the Estate solidifies it. Could he have had, similar to August Wilson, a clear and epic vision for his body of work from the get-go?
Yes, traces of that vision have popped up, such as in The Orphans' Home Cycle or his underappreciated gem The Last of the Thorntons, which unfolds in real time at a Harrison nursing home.
Still, Estate poses the notion that Foote, from the time he was a young scribe, mapped out his writing career as he kept plugging away. Perhaps he planned to keep us entertained with the stories and sentiments of his small-town Texans for much of that time, only to eventually knock us for a loop with the funny-because-it's-true declaration that, in the end, simple folk can be as morally bankrupt as everyone else.
That Foote, whata booger.
◊ Dividing the Estate is part of the area-wide Horton Foote Festival. Read more about it and see a schedule of events here.