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Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate" at the Booth Theatre

- Backstage with the Playwrights

Lincoln Center Theater
Under the Direction of
André Bishop, Bernard Gersten,
In Arrangement with Primary Stages

Dividing the Estate
A New Play by Horton Foote
(Dividing the Estate Website)

Devon Abner, Elizabeth Ashley, Pat Bowie,
James DeMarse, Hallie Foote, Arthur French,
Penny Fuller, Virginia Kull, Maggie Lacey,
Nicole Lowrance, Gerald McRaney,
Jenny Dare Paulin, Keiana Richàrd

At the
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street

Directed by Michael Wilson

Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Original Music Sound: John Gromada
Casting: Stephanie Klapper
Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
Director of Development: Hattie K. Jutagir
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Manager: Adam Siegel
Production Manager: Jeff Hamlin

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
December 4, 2008

Nothing can shatter adult family bonds, like the impending division of their parent’s estate. And, Horton Foote has captured the essence of sibling despair - repressed envy, razor-sharp greed, devilish dialogue, hidden failures, washed-up hope, and that ever urgent need to survive, and to survive with the trappings of fortunes of birth. There was something Chekhovian about this play, as this 1987 Texan family had been reared in gentility, with hired Black servants, thickly upholstered furniture, and a dining table replete with lace and sterling. Their fortunes were sinking (how timely this season), and dividing their mother’s real estate, while she’s alive and well, is the playwright’s vehicle to unpeel the sour personalities of this otherwise well-bred family.

Elizabeth Ashley, an actress of unusual presence and persona, is Stella, the stoic widow and owner of the family estate, who has no intention of selling her property, no matter the argument, no matter the market. She lives comfortably with two of her three children, the alcoholic, gambling, skirt-chasing Lewis (Gerald McRaney), also called Brother, and the widowed, loving Lucille (Penny Fuller), as well as Doug, Lucille’s devoted son (Devon Abner), also called Son (after all this is the South). Lucille cares for the home, and Doug cares for the land, which diminishes in value by the day, thanks to the loss of crops and industrial business. Also living at home are Stella’s longtime servants, the elderly, weak, and nostalgic Doug (Arthur French) and the strong and scolding Mildred (Pat Bowie), as well as the young and aspiring Cathleen (Keiana Richard). A reunion dinner is planned, as the third adult child is to arrive for dinner with her own intact family. That insecure, sharp-tongued daughter, Mary Jo (Hallie Foote, the playwright’s real daughter), arrives with her agenda-obsessed husband, Bob (James DeMarse), and their two teenage daughters, Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance), Bush twin look-alikes.

Also on board are Doug’s girlfriend, a schoolteacher, refined and charming Pauline (Maggie Lacey), and, much later on, Irene (Virginia Kull), Lewis’ girlfriend, whose father had extorted $10,000 up front, as Irene is so young. And so, the audience had an early taste of the thread of greed and avarice that would weave itself through the two-plus hours of Mr. Foote’s incisively perceptive and nuanced play. Last year, Dividing the Estate was produced Off-Broadway, at Primary Stages, also performed by this cast and also directed by Michael Wilson, to great acclaim. Thus, the move to Broadway. Dividing the Estate is full of humor, the kind of humor that forces the audience to look within themselves, within their own family affairs, and to recall any lawyer they’ve ever known, and there were probably many in tonight’s enthused crowd. Hallie Foote has a winning way of revealing Mary Jo’s bottomless cravings, all the while revealing her innate inadequacies. James DeMarse, as Mary Jo’s husband, slowly reveals his desperation and failures, with bravado turned bellicose.

The poignancy of the play is most apparent in the lifelong relationship between Stella and Doug, two elderly souls, contrasted in background, but connected by decades of mutual devotion. The onstage-offstage fate of these beloved friends drives the action with increased starkness and ever-present swords of words, although some swords are laced with honey. It’s that aura of repressed refinement that’s always visible in Jeff Cowie’s plush sets. As Lewis gives up his drinks, as Mary Jo and Bob come to terms with their court-induced, funding delays, as Lucille and Doug come to terms with their more-complex-than-planned style of living, and so on, life continues in Harrison, Texas; it seems that Horton Foote should sketch a sequel that would be equally magnetic and momentous. Michael Wilson drew stunningly sophisticated performances from this cast, and David C. Woolard designed costumes that tell a story, as colorful turns to black. Elizabeth Ashley, Hallie Foote, and Arthur French gave larger-than-life performances, throwing off extrinsic characteristics, and morphing into their characters with total abandon. Kudos to the entire cast, kudos to Michael Wilson, and kudos to Horton Foote.

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at