DIVIDING THE ESTATE theatre review

photos: Bassel Jadaa
photos: Bassel Jadaa
photos: Bassel Jadaa
photos: Bassel Jadaa
photos: Bassel Jadaa
photos: Bassel Jadaa

Players by the Sea opened the late Horton Foote’s 1989 play, Dividing the Estate on May 19. This, as far as we know, is the first play by this prolific author, whose work includes over sixty plays for stage and screen, ever done in the North Florida area. We are sure many readers are familiar with some of his other work, as he received Academy awards for his screenplays for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird.
This has been a very special occasion for Players by the Sea. Due to the generosity of this production’s sponsor, One World Foundation Inc, Hallie, Horton Foote’s daughter, came to Jacksonville to talk about her father’s work and to share her insights into the play with the director and performers. Hallie played the role of Mary Jo on Broadway and was nominated for a 2009 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play.
This is an outstanding play, not to be missed for several reasons. First, of course, is the intriguing script of this comedy drama, with each of the interesting thirteen characters fully developed. Director Kiki Tovey, from St. Augustine, in making her Players debut, did a remarkable job with casting, as evidenced by stellar performances from every member of this ensemble.
The story takes place in 1987, in the fictitious town of Harrison Texas, during a time of recession due to devaluation of oil and farm holdings. The treat of bankruptcy and foreclosure was a serious problem, so current audiences can readily relate to the era and the financial concerns of the family.
All of the action takes place in the Gordon’s family mansion on a large Texas estate. The set design by Joe Schwarz and Anne Roberts is realistic and stunning, with deep burgundy walls, a long dark wooden dining room table, covered with a lace tablecloth, and other elegant touches, including a comfortable upholstered chair and sofa. Completing the visuals, Sarah Marino’s costumes are colorful and appropriate to the era, and include changes for each scene.
Stella, the octogenarian matriarch, is a feisty and manipulative widow who lives in the past, is totally opposed to any division of the estate, and rules her children with an iron hand. This role is masterfully played by theatre veteran Gail Featheringill.
The estate has provided for the family for years, but Stella’s children want to divide up the estate now since at least two of them have been borrowing against their inheritance and living beyond their means. Middle-aged Lewis (Erik DeCicco) has never worked a day in his life, receives a generous monthly allowance, and lives at home free but squanders his money on gambling, liquor, and women. He owes the estate two hundred thousand dollars and needs an immediate cash infusion to get out of trouble with a teenage girl.
Mary Jo (Marcia Morgan-Cook) lives in Houston with husband Bob (Bill White), a real estate blowhard who is always planning sly and underhanded ways to make money. Their two daughters, Sissie (Kasie Walters) and Emily (Emerie Whiteman-Allen), are as spoiled as their mother. Mary Jo has also borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars against her future inheritance to support her extravagant ways.
Stella’s third child, Lucille (Brooks Anne Hayes), is widowed and dutifully bound to Stella. Although a bit neurotic, she is certainly the kindest of the siblings, as well as the most humorous.
Lucille’s grown child, Son (Jonathan Ross), lives at home and manages the estate for his grandmother. The offspring with the most sense, Son introduces his fiancée Pauline (Katie Wann) to the clan and announces they are planning to be married. The radiant Pauline is a schoolteacher whose compassion and modern views are not welcomed by all members of the family.
Although the setting is in 1987, Stella’s lifestyle is so firmly anchored in the past that the family still has full-time servants. These three smaller performances are a delight as well. Mildred (Toni Philips) is always busy with domestic duties, but has some of the most humorous lines. Cathleen (Antonette Johnson) has a few very emotional moments as she argues about who will serve the dinner with the elderly Doug (who is ninety-two, and brilliantly played by Eugene Lindsey wearing award-winning makeup to go along with his performance).
The second act is where everything comes to a head, with heated discussions and impassioned arguments and pleading about finances, taxes, oil leases and the need to split up the estate as soon as possible so all family members can have everything they are entitled to as soon as possible. Lewis pulls a surprise by bringing home his very young girlfriend, Irene, (Amanda Morales). Ms. Morales is dressed for work in her What-a-Burger outfit, in a delightful cameo appearance. The conclusion is a very amusing and interesting look at a very dysfunctional family, as they struggle to find answers to what seems like a very contemporary dilemma.
Kudos to Kiki Tovey for her definitive direction. Thanks as well to the support team, Susan Roche Stage Manager, Lana Mullins Assistant Stage Manager, Jim Wiggins as Technical Director and Lighting Designer. The cast was no doubt inspired by Hallie Foote’s interest and input into Players production of what is considered her father’s most humorous play. We highly recommend it. Call 249-0289 for reservations.