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Dividing the Estate

a Comedy
by Horton Foote

COMPANY : Theatrical Outfit [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 4516

SHOWING : April 02, 2014 - April 20, 2014



Old resentments and sibling rivalries bubble to the surface as the hilariously dysfunctional Gordon family of Harrison, Texas, spar to claim the biggest piece of the pie in the wildly funny, Tony-nominated DIVIDING THE ESTATE by Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning Horton Foote. Matriarch Stella Gordon keeps her aging and money-strapped children on a short financial leash with no plans to split her 100-year old estate. But the kids have other ideas.

Director Tom Key
Mildred S. Renee Clark
Doug Rob Cleveland
Cathleen Danielle Deadwyler
Emily Caroline Freedlund
Lucille Marianne Hammock
Lewis Bart Hansard
Bob Mark Kincaid
Mary Jo Tess Malis Kincaid
Sissie Jessica Miesel
Stella Mary Lynn Owen
Irene Maria Sager
Son Scott Warren
Pauline Elizabeth Welles
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Undivided Praise
by playgoer
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Horton Foote’s script for "Dividing the Estate" is a somewhat desultory affair concerning the situation of a land-rich, cash-poor matriarch whose passing is anticipated by her three children. One child wants the mother’s estate divided before her death, another is staunchly opposed, and the third vacillates. There’s no satisfying conclusion to the matter, just complication after complication. In the wrong hands, this script could result in a maddeningly dull, pointless production. Luckily, Theatrical Outfit has assembled a group of personnel consisting of precisely the right hands.

Director Tom Key has wrung nearly all the comedy possible out of the script. Big laughs are obtained from little things, like a sudden change of expression or a well-placed pause. All these little comic moments work in service of the overall flow of the script. Pacing keeps things moving, and blocking daringly puts actors’ backs to the audience in natural ways at some points, with movements or posture ensuring that sightlines aren’t obstructed long, even for audience members in the front row.

The actors playing the roles seem to have been encouraged to develop the interior lives of their characters so that they act, react, and interact with subtlety and precision. I was particularly pleased with the relationship between Son (Scott Warren) and his intended (Elizabeth Wells Berkes), which gave a breath of hope and love in the midst of severe family dysfunction. The only performances that didn’t entirely convince me were those of Rob Cleveland, who is too hale to be totally believable as a near-death nonagenarian, and of Jessica Miesel, who appears a bit colorless in personality as granddaughter Sissie.

Colorless can’t be used to describe the costumes by Jonida Beqo. The play takes place in 1987, and the clothing and big hair create an oversized kaleidoscope of design that keeps visual interest throughout. The time-specific quality of the clothes contrasts with the timeless quality of the scenery, designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay. Floor-to-ceiling shutters flank three windows, with column cornices and doorways marking the delineation between dining room and living room. There are no walls, just pictures suspended in space where the walls would be. A schematic tree lurks outside, limbs with Spanish moss extending above the top of the set and roots surrounding its floor, giving a literal sense of the overreaching power of the gnarled family tree. The only negative comments I heard about the design elements of the show were for daughter Lucille sporting a white belt with multiple outfits, while her shoes were black; for dining room chairs being upholstered in two different patterns; and for staples being visible on the border of the upholstery on a stool.

The timelessness of the set is given one time-specific touch by MC Park’s prop of a Rubik’s cube. Mostly, it sits there on a table next to a Kleenex box. It is handled once, and I wish Jessica Miesel’s business of fiddling with the Rubik’s cube had been directed so that she solved it in a few twists, which would have hinted at hidden depths under her vapid exterior and would have pointed to the overwhelming influence on her of the shallowness of the rest of her family.

As for the acting, it offers the finest ensemble work that is likely to be seen anywhere. Mary Lynn Owen (with splendid age makeup) and Tess Malis Kincaid exhibit exquisite comic timing as the matriarch and her most contentious daughter. Marianne Hammock plays the other daughter with verve and charm, while Bart Hansard gives the drunken, lachrymose son as much life as the script allows. The estate-managing grandson is played by Scott Warren with low-key conscientiousness that beautifully balances the somewhat pedantic volubility of schoolteacher Pauline, winningly played by bespectacled Elizabeth Wells Berkes. Caroline Freedlund, as a granddaughter, and Maria Rodriguez-Sager, as the son’s too-young girlfriend, breathe life into the youngest characters, holding their own with the veterans that surround them. Servants Mildred and Cathleen are played by S. Renee Clark and Danielle Deadwyler with what would be scene-stealing intensity and guile were they surrounded by less accomplished actors. Mark Kincaid, playing the husband of his real-life wife, brings a hard-nosed (but incompetent) businessman to life. The acting talent amazes; the acting skill amazes even more so.

"Dividing the Estate" is by no means a well-made play in which plot points move inexorably to a satisfying conclusion. The charm of Horton Foote’s plays doesn’t come from the bones of the plot, though, but from the real-life interactions and conversations that surround it. When the interactions and conversations are undertaken by as stellar a cast as Theatrical Outfit has assembled, and when they’re directed by a master like Tom Key, the results are stunning. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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