With all its family feudin’ and unapologetic displays of spite, greed and self-interest, Horton Foote’s final play, Dividing the Estate, might as well be a reality TV show. It’d no doubt be a raging hit on Fox or the CW. Personifying the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt, the Gordon clan of fictitious Harrison, Texas (circa 1987) is populated by feisty, pronouncement-wielding Grandma Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), the family matriarch and keeper of the presumed valuable estate; sour-mouthed daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote, the late playwright’s daughter), harried daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) and boozin’, gamblin’ son Lewis (Horton Foote, Jr.). They’re divided on the notion of dividing the estate Stella clings to in her diminishing days. Of course, there’s a lot of peripheral and unsolicited advice from inlaws like Mary Jo’s good-old-boy husband Bob (James DeMarse) and the well-meaning schoolteacher Pauline (Kelly McAndrew) who’s engaged to the widowed Lucille’s son, who’s called, uh, Son (Devon Abner).
The Old Globe’s West Coast premiere of the 1989 Foote play, staged on a sumptuous ground-floor-mansion set, becomes rather claustrophobic, mostly when there’s too much dead space between laughs. Possibly that was Foote’s, and even director Michael Wilson’s intention: to make the audience as uneasy in this household as are so many of its inhabitants, Mary Jo in particular. Except for Stella, deliciously played by the veteran actress Ashley, and for 92-year-old majordomo Doug (Roger Robinson, at once funny and poignant), the denizens of this home register low on likability. Some of the familial sparring is entertaining, but a dinner scene near the end of Act 1 feels overlong and static. No matter the subject or tenor of the at-table conversation, it’s just not that exciting to watch characters, some of them with their backs to us, eating supper.
Ashley’s Stella so commands attention – her fellow characters’ and ours – that she is missed every moment she’s not on stage. This woman could look J.R. Ewing in the eye and not blink. She needs a worthy adversary in Dividing the Estate, and none of her brood is substantially up to the task.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.