On Theater: A family divided in Foote's 'Estate'

Horton Foote wrote more than 100 plays during his nearly 93 years of creativity, many of which have been produced by local theaters. One that's been absent from our stages, however, is "Dividing the Estate," a family-themed dramatic comedy from the late 1980s that only now has surfaced at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

This play, like much of Foote's Southern-fried creations, is an acquired taste, but playgoers probably will acquire it before the lights dim on its first act. After that point, it's just fun to watch the several members of a Texas family battle greedily for the upper hand in a quest for proceeds and property.

Initially, the Gordons are a fairly convivial clan, sharing a large Texas estate presided over by the aging matriarch Stella (Nancy Larner) and also housing her grown children, Lucille (Sharyn Case) and Lewis (Sean Singer), and her grandson, known only as "Son" (Sean Sellers), as well as assorted servants.

In time, another heiress arrives, daughter Mary Jo (Della Lisi), along with her ineffectual husband Bob (Larry Creagan) and their attractive teen daughters (Whitney Ellis and Natalie Swinford), who frequently are mistaken for one another. Add to this mix Son's schoolteacher fiancee Pauline (Chiara Issa) and an ancient family retainer Doug (J.L.T. Williams), a cook (Gwen Wooldridge) and her helper Cathleen (Aili Jiaravanont) and you've got quite a contentious household.

Director Brian Page stirs this concoction effectively, pressing the comedic buttons when required to elaborate on the quirkiness of one character of another. As two of them pass away unexpectedly, the others converge to sniff out their advantage should the estate be divided.

It's a splendid ensemble, but one performer emerges memorably β€” Lisi's avaricious desperation as the sister, transplanted to Houston, who looks down on the others as her own financial position is diminishing. Her "What about me?" attitude and her impatient finger drumming as other issues are discussed amplify this excellent performance.

In contrast, Case presents a solid, if more undramatic, character who's adapted to her life on the estate, joining Sellers β€” who has three years of college behind him β€” in managing the family finances. Sellers, a calm young widower, seems the most "normal" character of the bunch and a sense of calm amid the familial storm.

He's contrasted by his uncle Lewis, a role beautifully executed by Singer as a heavy-drinking schemer seeking money from the estate to, as he puts it, save his life (by placating the angry father of his young lady friend). Issa brightens the picture as Son's fiancee, a sparkling presence in the midst of continual turmoil.

Larner also impresses as the iron-willed grandmother sternly opposing the property sale. Creagan is less effective as Lisi's real estate agent husband who argues for it, while Williams (a white actor playing a servant's role originally written for an African-American) displays moments of depth and clarity amid his character's normal befuddlement.

Ellis and Swinford shine as Lisi's self-centered daughters, also dividing the spoils in their minds. Jaspre Dixon, who arrives late in the play as Singer's squeeze, offers a dimly lit defining moment, while Wooldridge and Jiaravanont function believably as the kitchen staff.

Andrew Otero's old-house setting, with curtains blending into the wallpaper, is admirable, as are the costume creations of Claudia Berglund and Joni Stockinger. Likewise, Mitch Atkins' lighting and Page's sound design blend well in the proceedings.

Foote was a past master of mining artistic gold from the conflicts of families, particularly Southern ones. The mixture spotlighted in "Dividing the Estate" combines drama and comedy to high effect at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Dividing the Estate"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. until April 27

Cost: $12

Information: (949) 631-0288 or http://www.ntaconline.com

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