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On Theater: A family divided in Foote's 'Estate'

April 02, 2014|By Tom Titus
  • The cast of "Dividing the Estate" at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.
The cast of "Dividing the Estate" at the Newport… (Ron Yee )

Horton Foote wrote more than 100 plays during his nearly 93 years of creativity, many of which have been produced by local theaters. One that's been absent from our stages, however, is "Dividing the Estate," a family-themed dramatic comedy from the late 1980s that only now has surfaced at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

This play, like much of Foote's Southern-fried creations, is an acquired taste, but playgoers probably will acquire it before the lights dim on its first act. After that point, it's just fun to watch the several members of a Texas family battle greedily for the upper hand in a quest for proceeds and property.

Initially, the Gordons are a fairly convivial clan, sharing a large Texas estate presided over by the aging matriarch Stella (Nancy Larner) and also housing her grown children, Lucille (Sharyn Case) and Lewis (Sean Singer), and her grandson, known only as "Son" (Sean Sellers), as well as assorted servants.

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In time, another heiress arrives, daughter Mary Jo (Della Lisi), along with her ineffectual husband Bob (Larry Creagan) and their attractive teen daughters (Whitney Ellis and Natalie Swinford), who frequently are mistaken for one another. Add to this mix Son's schoolteacher fiancee Pauline (Chiara Issa) and an ancient family retainer Doug (J.L.T. Williams), a cook (Gwen Wooldridge) and her helper Cathleen (Aili Jiaravanont) and you've got quite a contentious household.

Director Brian Page stirs this concoction effectively, pressing the comedic buttons when required to elaborate on the quirkiness of one character of another. As two of them pass away unexpectedly, the others converge to sniff out their advantage should the estate be divided.

It's a splendid ensemble, but one performer emerges memorably — Lisi's avaricious desperation as the sister, transplanted to Houston, who looks down on the others as her own financial position is diminishing. Her "What about me?" attitude and her impatient finger drumming as other issues are discussed amplify this excellent performance.

In contrast, Case presents a solid, if more undramatic, character who's adapted to her life on the estate, joining Sellers — who has three years of college behind him — in managing the family finances. Sellers, a calm young widower, seems the most "normal" character of the bunch and a sense of calm amid the familial storm.

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