If the antics of this family weren’t so funny, they’d make you cry, but that’s the genius of playwright Horton Foote, whose Tony-nominated Dividing the Estate has transferred from Broadway to Hartford Stage with most of the outstanding original cast directed by Michael Wilson, including Foote’s daughter Hallie.
This Foote (who was nominated for a featured actress Tony for her portrayal) plays Mary Jo, who descends on the family manse with husband Bob (James DeMarse) and her two teen daughters Emily and Sissie (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance) to convince her mother, Stella (Lois Smith, replacing Broadway’s Elizabeth Ashley) to divide the estate among the siblings while hiding her motivation: her family is on the brink of financial disaster following the 1987 real-estate downturn in Houston.
Brother Lewis (an understated Gerald McRaney) spends a lot of his time drunk and running for his life from the father of the young girl with whom he is involved, and who's demanding $10,000 from Lewis. Already $200,000 in debt to the estate, Lewis sides with Mary Jo, who has borrowed $300,000. They both feel that the estate should be divided so they no longer need to explain why they need money to their nephew Son (Devon Abner) who's managed the estate since his father's death. His mother and the third sibling, Lucille (Penny Fuller), argues against dividing the estate because doing so would put Son out of job and discontinue the rent-free situation she and Son enjoy in the house. Caught in the middle of all the bickering, much of it containing guffaw-inducing dialogue is Son’s new love interest, Pauline (Maggie Lacey).
Stella may be divided in loyalties among her children, but there is one thing that won’t be divided, she vows: the estate. She won’t sell the land, even though other farms in the area have gone the way of development. She reluctantly allows Son to contract for gas drilling in the hopes of striking oil.
A secondary concern for Stella is the welfare of the house's servants, Mildred (Pat Bowie), Cathleen (Keanu Richard) and ancient Doug (a particularly comic Arthur French), who insists on serving the family at table (a centerpiece in Jeff Cowie opulently rendered scenic design of the home's interior). despite the fact that he has a palsy so severe that he’s barely able to carry the smallest of items let alone a serving tray.
When Doug and Stella die within hours of each other, the children’s conflict comes to a head. Their greed and arguments might prove depressing, if not for Foote’s ability to create well-developed and very likable characters who throw some rather brilliant dialogue at each other. There's real affection amid the dysfunction in "Estate" as well as a tangible family bond. It's these qualities that make they play an enjoyable character study, which is made even more compelling by the strong performances from the ensemble.
---- Lauren Yarger
Dividing the Estate plays at Hartford Stage (50 Church Street, Hartford) through July 5. Performance times are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm and Friday and Saturday at 8 pm with matinee performances Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Tickets are $23 - $66 with student and other discounted tickets available they may be purchased by calling 860-527-5151 or by visiting www.hartfordstage.org.