Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus
Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus

By Manning Harris

Theatrical Outfit is currently producing Horton Foote’s acerbic comedy “Dividing the Estate,” running through April 20.

A cast of some of Atlanta’s best actors helps propel this rollicking down home “family in financial crisis with two deaths added” play, which had short runs off and on Broadway in 2007-2008, into a gleeful entertainment, directed by Tom Key.

Horton Foote, a fixture in American drama for over 65 years, is probably best known for the screenplays of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” (he won Oscars for both) and his play “The Trip to Bountiful,” the film version of which finally got the great Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar.  In addition, Foote won a Pulitzer for his 1995 play “The Young Man from Atlanta.”  He wrote his entire life and died in 2009 at age 92.

In “Dividing the Estate” Stella Gordon (Mary Lynn Owen) is the octogenarian matriarch of a large and fractious family in Harrison, Texas, and she rules with an iron hand the family and the estate.  It’s 1987, financial times are uncertain at best, and what was once a wealthy family with a big house and lots of land is now less so.

Soon the grown children start descending on the old homestead, all with dollar signs dancing in their heads; none more so than Mary Jo (Tess Malis Kincaid) with her husband Bob (Mark Kincaid; yes, they’re married in real life, too) and their two grown daughters, Emily (Caroline Freedlund) and Sissie (Jessica Miesel).  Mary Jo, her eyes fiery with avarice and desperation, reminds one of a giant bird of prey.  But really, she just troubles less than the others to hide her feelings:  “I want everything—what about you?”

Emily and Sissie are horrified to learn that they and their parents may have to give up their Houston home and live in the old homestead.

Other grown kids are Lewis (Bart Hansard), who’s sentimental, lachrymose, and drunk much of the time; he aptly observes, “I just love the way everybody in this family changes conversations.”  And they do—often, and in complete non sequiturs.  You may have to be Southern to understand that (I am), but I’m not sure.

The final grown child is Lucille (Marianne Hammock), whose son is known simply as Son (Scott Warren), who seems to be the most practical, except he’s engaged to a loquacious schoolteacher named Pauline (Elizabeth Wells Berkes) who’s a veritable Book of Facts, annoying, yet funny.

There is also Doug (Rob Cleveland), a loyal but fading 92-year-old family retainer who’s unwilling to cede his duties to Mildred (S. Renee Clark).

As you see, this is a large cast.  There is also Danielle Deadwyler and Maria Rodriguez-Sager.  It is my pleasure to inform you that they (the entire cast) are uniformly excellent.  This is the second fine performance from Mary Lynn Owen (the other was in Actor’s Express’ “Six Degrees of Separation) I’ve seen this season.

The superb cast is vital, because Foote’s characters do not have colorful or vivid backstories the way that Tennessee Williams’ people in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” have, or Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.” Both plays, incidentally, also deal with family crises and avarice.  When “Dividing the Estate” came to Broadway, “August” was enjoying a triumphant, award-winning run.

Yet Horton Foote knows his milieu so well (he wrote about it for over 50 years) and shows a sly comic zest so sympathetically that “Estate,” though not a truly great play, just sails along.

I must question the brilliant set designers Isabel A. and Moriah Curley Clay on one thing:  Why is the dinner table way over on stage right?  Much of the audience (including yours truly) cannot see the faces of the characters for too long.  Some adjustment could surely have been made here.

Even with these caveats, I heartily recommend “Dividing the Estate.”  A stage full of actors of this caliber?  Are you kidding?  And a cagey, wise script that just works, with Tom Key’s astute direction—why, no real theatre lover in the city should pass this up.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.