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Wednesday, May 31, 2023 — Houston, TX

Online Only: Dividing the Estate--Or Not

By Brooke Bullock and Emily Nichol     10/22/11 7:00pm

When Rice Program Council was handing out free tickets to the 2009 Tony Best Play nominee "Dividing the Estate," it seemed to bode well for a great night of theater. This production did not live up to its Tony nomination, though, making the fact that tickets were free a lucky deal. The generally circular plot, repetitive dialogue, and frustrating characters made for a mild, easy play that may appeal to older audiences, but came off as dry.

The play is set in Stella Gordon's house in a fictional town in east Texas, shortly after the real estate bust in the late 1980s. Worried about their financial security, Stella's children Lucille and Lewis, who both live with Stella, and Mary Jo, who drives in from Houston, gather to discuss the future of their mother's vast estate. Arguments and circular logic follow as the controlling, obedient and addictive personalities, all with different relationships to the mother, clash with each other.

Considering that Hallie Foote, who played Mary Jo Gordon and is the daughter of playwright Horton Foote, was also nominated in 2009 for a Tony award for her performance in the off-Broadway incarnation, her physical awkwardness was surprising. While her voice, appearance and demeanor beautifully portrayed the essence of her self-absorbed, worrisome, jumpy character, it felt like she didn't know what to do with her hands. She looked painfully aware of her stance, and her sudden vocal rises didn't seem natural. Frankly her shrillness was annoying.

A better performance came from Elizabeth Ashley , who played the octogenarian matriarch of the Gordon family. Her natural and refined performance of the aging mother brought power and passion to Stella's fight to keep the family estate in tact.

As the Houston business man Bob, James DeMarse tended to steal the spot light with get-rich-quick schemes and a witty and frank portrayal, if only as comic relief from the tiresome arguing of the Gordon siblings. He presented a blunt and outspoken character that overshadowed the Gordon siblings with the awkwardness of Foote and the energy-lacking efforts of  Penny Fuller and James Black.

The bumbling, post-coed daughters seemed like their only purpose was comic relief, having next to no weight in the overall concern of selling the estate, but they're motivations (and their reasons for being onstage) were unclear.

The local allusions and old-fashioned humor felt dated. Audience members got a big laugh out of the old University of Texas vs. Texas A&M joke, but in Texas, that joke always works, no matter what the context. Other than that, the biggest laughs came after the mention of Houston, and how bad the city fared after the oil bust.  

Historically, this play is known for its rich characterizations. While Stella brought that richness, the rest of the cast fell flat in comparison. The stakes of dividing the estate were left unclear to the audience and the siblings, while not antagonists, were not good people either: Everyone exhibits moments of selfishness, and no one seems to really love, or even care, about anyone else. It was difficult for the audience to feel empathy for any character, making the experience of being a viewer awkward and a bit unsatisfying.


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