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Review: Le Petit Theatre stages Dividing the Estate

The theater presents Horton Foote’s drama

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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote told compassionate and realistic stories about ordinary Americans coping with difficult situations and inevitable change. Sometimes called America's Chekhov, Foote built many of his stories around characters living in small Texas towns much like his childhood home. Foote's Dividing the Estate, recently produced by Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and directed by Maxwell Williams, involves a Southern landowning family facing dwindling returns and ruinous taxation. Their great-great-grandfather, who served in the Union Army, purchased land cheaply after the Civil War to cultivate cotton. Now, two quarreling siblings want to dissolve the 100-year-old estate and get their "deserved" inheritance as quickly as possible.

  Strong, willful characters, engaging dialogue and contemporary issues make Dividing the Estate an enduring classic.

  Stella Gordon (Brenda Currin), the family's 85-year-old matriarch, feels an emotional attachment to her history. Despite her grown children's insistence, she swears she won't sell the homestead. Stella survived the Depression and believes there must be a way to make the household self-sufficient again without resorting to drilling for oil.

  Son (Curtis Billings) dropped out of college to manage the farm but lately has had to borrow from the bank to pay property taxes. Stella, her daughter Lucille (Mary Pauley) and Son scrimp to make ends meet while son Lewis (Carl Palmer) draws funds against his future inheritance, mostly to pay off gambling debts. He obnoxiously complains of being treated like a child, having to ask for an advance on his allowance, while behaving like a spoiled juvenile. When his sister Mary Jo (Wendy Miklovic) arrives from Houston with big hair, gaudy clothes and a brash attitude, a clash of cultures is imminent.

  The luscious set, featuring traditional furnishings, pastoral paintings and a view of the prized, sunlit landscape, is perfect for the family drama. Scenic designer Jeff Cowie created the original set for off-Broadway and Broadway productions of Dividing the Estate and won awards for The Trip to Bountiful and The Orphans' Home Cycle, plays Foote wrote about the South.

  Dividing the Estate's sadness and sentimentality are balanced by the comic relief provided by faithful household servants Doug (Harold X. Evans) and Mildred (Carol Sutton), who have endured family members' self-centeredness for decades. Their resigned, head-shaking reactions to old rivalries ease the tension and add to the story's humanity. There is little doubt the beloved staff has been the glue that keeps the family together. Doug, 92, who came to the estate as a 5-year-old, is now unable to serve because of his trembling hands, yet he too is making a list of wants, including a lavish headstone and chorus of "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

  Symbolizing the future, Son's fiancee Pauline (Elizabeth Bartley) is a steadying influence, and contributes a much-needed pragmatic outlook. When Mama dies and no fortune is found, they must bond together and find solace in family.

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