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Horton Foote’s children keep his plays alive

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Audiences who see Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate,” opening Thursday at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, will experience two hours of a family’s comically desperate, talons-baring tussle over whether and how to cash out a 5,000-acre homestead in southeast Texas that’s been passed down from generation to generation.

But behind the scenes, the story line is just the opposite. There, the agenda is a family’s unified, concord-filled effort to keep a theatrical legacy intact, celebrate it and carry it forward.

Horton Foote’s two older children, Hallie and Horton Jr., are among the onstage combatants in San Diego, playing siblings Lewis and Mary Jo — he a bibulous ne’er-do-well and she a marvel of instinctive, unadulterated self-interest, traits that in the right hands can be hilarious. Her 2009 Tony Award nomination in the part would suggest that’s the case.

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Hallie’s husband, Devon Abner, plays Lewis and Mary Jo’s nephew, who stays relatively calm and sensible amid a storm whose gathered forces also include Broadway stalwarts Elizabeth Ashley and Penny Fuller as the family’s matriarch and elder sister. The director, Michael Wilson, has been personally and professionally close to the Footes since 1991, making him “almost an adopted member of the … family,” according to “Horton Foote, America’s Storyteller,” Wilborn Hampton’s 2009 biography of the playwright.

Working until his death three years ago, just shy of his 93rd birthday, Foote wrote more than 60 plays, including “The Trip to Bountiful” and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta.” Known for his gracious manner, he also wrote extensively for film and television, including Oscar-winning scripts for the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and his original 1983 story, “Tender Mercies.”

Since the late 1970s, Hallie Foote, 61, has been the fulcrum of many a cast of her father’s plays (Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page, Robert Duvall and Jean Stapleton are other notables who’ve starred in shows from his 70-year oeuvre).

Horton Jr., 59, got in on the act in the early 1980s. Before switching to the restaurant business in 1995, when he opened Tavern on Jane, a folksy neighborhood spot in New York’s Greenwich Village, he played opposite Hallie in three films, a television movie and three stage productions of their father’s work, and a staging of “God’s Pictures” by their playwright youngest sibling, Daisy Foote.

The San Diego incarnation of “Dividing the Estate” extends an informal tour that began off-Broadway in 2007, then continued through 2009 on Broadway and at Hartford Stage, the Connecticut company then run by Wilson. Last fall it resumed with more or less the same cast at Houston’s Alley Theatre. When Horton Jr. learned that the role of Lewis had opened up in San Diego, he put in a bid for his first part in more than 16 years.

A sudden onset of tears constricted his voice as he tried to convey what it means to be able to reinhabit the small-town world his father created and, through that, to walk with him again after his death.

“I’m having a great time, and I’m just so grateful I get this chance to do this one more time,” he whispered.

Hallie, sitting beside her brother during their lunch break from rehearsals, jumped in with sisterly solicitude, telling a story to illustrate how crying on happy occasions is a family-wide trait. At Daisy’s wedding, her role was to read something her father had written for the ceremony. The elder Foote assured her, “‘If you get too emotional, just tap me on the shoulder and I’ll read it.’ So I got up and started to cry, and I looked at him, and he went, ‘You’re on your own,’ and he started sobbing.”

Like playwright August Wilson and novelists such as William Faulkner and John Updike, Foote repeatedly re-created the place where he grew up — Wharton, Texas, which he renamed Harrison in his plays. Often, the stories are based on true family lore; he modeled the characters in “Dividing the Estate” after his grandmother and aunts and uncles. After a commercially fallow period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, when he and wife, Lillian, were raising their four children in a small town in New Hampshire, Foote began a comeback with “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” a sequence of nine plays that includes a retelling of his parents’ romance.

Hallie didn’t take up acting until she was in her mid-20s, after a stab at public relations in Boston. Her father helped her find teachers in Los Angeles, and while watching her perform in one of his plays in 1977 at a small L.A. theater, he realized his daughter was precisely the actress he needed to play his mother as a young woman.

Horton Jr. says without sheepishness that he followed in his sister’s footsteps. He had worked his way up selling men’s clothing in Boston and Beverly Hills but had a change of heart and wound up at the Loft Studio, the same school where Hallie had studied (and where he says his fellow students included Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Anjelica Huston and Michelle Pfeiffer). The other Foote siblings live in New York state. Daisy typically sets her plays in small-town New Hampshire and is married to Tim Guinee, a busy television actor. Walter is an attorney who wrote and directed a well-received 1999 independent feature film, “The Tavern,” inspired by his brother’s adventures as a restaurateur. Walter has sired the next Foote generation, two teenagers whose athletic and scholastic prowess Aunt Hallie and Uncle Horton like to trumpet.

Along with their theatrical instincts, the Foote siblings say, they inherited a certain diffidence about self-promotion that is not ideal in the world of show business. “You’ve really got to fight and scratch and claw, and to be honest, I probably didn’t fight and scratch and claw as much as I should have,” Horton said. “That’s never been my strong suit.”

“That’s the thing,” chimed in Hallie (who is Barbara Hallie to her family but dropped Barbara from her stage name early on because it made people assume that Hallie was her last name). “We weren’t raised by a careerist.”

Hallie’s acting honors include a 1993 Obie Award and the Tony nomination for “Dividing the Estate,” a turn Ben Brantley of the New York Times praised as “true comic genius.”

Now that her father, who lived with Hallie and her husband in Pacific Palisades during his last four-plus years, is gone, she hasn’t discerned any particular inner drive to branch out and win comparable acclaim in other acting milieus.

“I’m the worst, I’m just the worst,” when it comes to projecting herself onto casting directors’ radar, she said, adding with a laugh that she recently bestrode the megaplexes with a part in the horror film “Paranormal Activity 3.”

“I’ve always said if I don’t get to do anything else except my father’s stuff, that’s fine with me. For an actor it’s very exciting, because there are so many layers to it. It’s never been a problem for me.”

“I’m going to push her a little,” vowed her brother, who for his own part doesn’t see his turn in “Dividing the Estate” as a prelude to a renewed acting career. “She’s so talented, and she really should be working.”

Whatever happens, tending the creative estate they’ve inherited will remain a priority. Hallie is spearheading a nascent nonprofit foundation, tentatively called the Horton Foote Legacy, that aims to draw attention to his plays and preserve the home in Wharton where he was raised and returned throughout his life. She envisions launching an artist-in-residence program there, with grant recipients coming to soak up the vibe and write.

Director Wilson says he also plans to keep pushing Foote’s legacy forward. The plays typically unfold in a subtler and lower-keyed register than those of contemporaries such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Foote is most often likened to Anton Chekhov, whose “The Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya” have direct echoes in certain elements of “Dividing the Estate.” But the rehearsal sequence in which an outraged, tantrum-throwing Hallie leaped in the air, then shook her pompom-less fists over her head, like the high school cheerleader she once was, bore witness that her dad could write high-octane stuff when he wanted to.

Wilson notes that, despite Foote’s stature, this is just the fourth major production of one of his plays in Southern California. Martin Benson of South Coast Repertory became a convert about 10 years ago and directed the three others at the Costa Mesa theater. The three leading stage companies in Los Angeles remain virgins to the Foote oeuvre — including the Pasadena Playhouse, where the playwright got his start in the theater as a teenage acting student during the early 1930s, skipping lunches during his first semester so he could afford private voice lessons aimed at expunging his Texas accent.

Wilson says there are prospects of taking “Dividing the Estate” to London; his grail is to find producers for Foote’s last, most epic work: his condensation of the nine full-length plays of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” into three evenings designed to be programmed together and performed by 22 actors, as they were in runs in Hartford and New York in fall 2009.

Unlike the estate that’s in danger of being liquidated in the current play, Wilson believes Foote’s theatrical acreage will appreciate in value and esteem as time goes on. “The inherent American stories at the heart of Horton’s plays are timeless,” he said. “It’s something [theater companies] will be able to go back to the well for.”

Hallie Foote is confident that even if she continues to stick mainly to roles her father wrote, she’s in no danger of running short of work. “I’m very committed to [his] legacy, which I think is just going to increase.”

mike.boehm@latimes.com


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