Posted by: strugglesome | May 16, 2011

Everything Must Go: People’s Light and Theater Company’s Dividing The Estate

Actor and comedian George Burns once remarked, “Happiness is a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city”. And certainly anyone who has ever spent any time alone in a room with their family can understand what he meant. So when we take a peak at the Gordon family, a far too real figment of Horton Foote’s vivid imagination, as they move through their lives during the course of his Southern fried Cherry Orchard style play, Dividing the Estate, we can’t help but simultaneously sigh and cringe. We sigh, because thank goodness it’s not our family, and we cringe, because, well, it totally could be. Though of course this play takes place in 1987, so if it is your family, you probably hope they now have better hair.

A native of Texas, Foote found himself fascinated with the story telling tradition of the South, the Faulknerian lines of legacy and blood that tie people to the land and to each other. As a result, this play, Foote’s gently told tale of money, family, land, greed and funerals,  paints a portrait of a Southern dynasty, crumbling before our eyes as it grasps desperately to stay a float in the depression of modernity and misuse. Three generations strut and fret their hours on the stage, aging matriarch Stella  (Carla Belver) governing with an iron if forgetful fist over her three children, dutiful Lucille ( Marcia Saunders), wastrel Lewis (Graham Smith) and vain Mary Jo (Kathryn Peterson)  with her husband, slickly drawn real estate shark Bob (Greg Wood) and dictating for the third generation,  Lucille’s Son (thats…a name, and the character is played by Christian Pedersen) and Mary Jo’s Emily (Victoria Frings) and Sissie (Elena Bossler). Of course there is also the all black wait staff (don’t you just adore the South and it’s cute quaint racism?) sharecropper’s son Doug (Lou Ferguson), cook Mildred ( Cathy Simpson) and young maid Cathleen (Aime Kelly). Rounding out the family fun is school teacher/Son’s fiancée Pauline (Amy Hutchins) and fast food drudge/jailbait Irene Ratcliff (Emilie Krause), and there you have it. A bird’s-eye view of a clan in chaos, sentimental vultures eager to pick the scrawny carcass dry. Or they would be, if there was a single thing left to take. Because despite the fact that any introduction to Playwriting class will inform you that money is the least interesting thing to discuss onstage, this play is all about the cash, or lack thereof. In theory this play should be extremely boring, it’s a lot of talking about people we don’t know and never see, family gossip and dynamics, money woes and little actual plot. But it’s a testament to Foote’s writing, Abigail Adam’s direction and the work of this largely talented and almost all perfectly placed cast that the complete picture is a hopelessly engaging glimpse into the lives of these annoying, flawed, completely empathic people.

The trick lies in scale. This is not an epic play, it’s a small one, about a large family with some completely commonplace problems. Texas in the late 80’s was depressed, enjoying a mini-recession that lost the Texan elite quite a bit of cash, leaving the once-rich sitting on worthless land and piles of tax returns. And while Stella’s grasping relations urge her to divide the estate (it’s all right there in the title) she is determined to keep the land together, and in doing so, traps her family together after her offstage passing. Because the play is flavored with Chekhovian elements it works both as comedy and tragedy, allowing us to savor the entirety of this world and relate to each element within it as it comes. Tony Straiges’ predictable but well used set  cloaks the stage with a wide deep living and dining room, a little slice of the Gordon household on display, while Christopher Colucci’s sweetly sung and neatly designed hymns score the piece with homegrown charm. Dennis Parichy’s lighting design is so subtle as to be nearly unnoticeable (this is actually a compliment, this is naturalism, after all) and Colleen Muscha’s gloriously 80’s costumes coat the characters in jumpsuits, Laura Ashly prints, shoulder pads and really big hair.

Adams’ direction and staging are clean and clear enough to point the audience where it needs to go, but her real triumph is in forging an ensemble that acts, walks and talks like a family. The sense of familiarity and history this production has achieved is remarkable. Often time actors will touch objects like they are seeing them for the first time, because in many cases they are, the set isn’t particularly familiar to the cast until midway through the run. This cast, with a few small exceptions, is living in this space, they know it well, they posses it completely. Belver’s Stella might as well be putting down literal roots she’s so entrenched in this space, while Saunders’ Lucille moves from room to room with the air of a life-long resident, and both of their relationships to Ferguson’s sweetly addled Doug, Simpson’s sassy Mildred and Smith’s pathetic and flawed Lewis are so clear and layered with love and exasperation that you can’t help but smile as you sigh. Petersen’s Mary Jo hits just the right balance of horribly self-absorbed and hilariously real, while Wood’s slick and slimy Bob completes this match made in heaven (or…hell). The youngest generation is a bit more forgettable,  Pedersen’s Son is aiming for put upon and noble but comes off as a touch lock jawed, and has zero chemistry with Hutchins’ cutely know-it-all Pauline. Bossler’s catty Sissie is more annoying than amusing, (but what can you expect with a character named Sissie?) and contrasts clearly with Frings far deeper and more appealing performance of Emily, or Kelly’s comic turn as Cathleen, or Krause’s wide-eyed deep-fried Lolita style Irene. But if everyone in this piece isn’t perfect, the totality is so well done that it’s actually relaxing to watch, you can just sit back, relax, and watch some excellent performances. And be really happy that it’s someone else’s family up there, and not your own.

People’s Light and Theater Company’s production of Dividing the Estate will run until the 5th of June. Make it a family outing, if you dare. Tickets are available here.

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