Broadway is currently enjoying its share of dysfunctional families, and Horton Foote’s Texas clan fit right in. And while they may not have as much bite as their neighbors from Osage County across the street, there is certainly plenty of bark. Some hearty laughs too.
Dividing the Estate, is about well, just that. The estate in question, has been in the family for generations. A once sprawling plantation, it is now surrounded by fast food chains and “Koreans or Taiwanese or something.” (Incidentally, it’s Vietnamese, but that’s another matter). The ailing matriarch of the family, Stella, is hell bent on never dividing it, while her children fight over whether or not to. Those three words “Dividing” “the” “Estate” ring over and over throughout the play carrying those invested in it through emotions of greed, desire, memory, and mockery until exhaustedly landing as a punchline, splat, on the estate’s living room floor.
Set in the 1980s, the piece couldn’t be more timely. Houston is in a depression. Austin isn’t far behind. There is danger of a “service based economy.” The housing market has crashed. The “dying on a vine of a town” where the play takes place is a testament to the overall development of Texas and its consequences that will ultimately lead to the disappearance of farmland. Anyone that has been to the hill country lately will relate.
Like any family room drama, the family squabbles, truths are uncovered, and shock and hurt feelings ensue. Of the hurt siblings, Hallie Foote (Horton Foote’s daughter) is a standout. Assigned the task of playing the most consumed and self-centered of the three, she handles her character with awe inspiring comic ease. There are few truths in this play that really cause mouth dropping. It is the way they are handled, or mostly not, that is the most interesting case for human behavior and the most powerful aspect of the piece. Expressions of emotions of pain or discontent are acknowledged sideways if at all, those expressing them are cast an irritated glance, as if they had just used an improper utensil. Anything real or probing is quickly and effortlessly swept under the rug and the effect is both fascinating and also incredibly frustrating.
The tension in the house is compounded by the tension of time–an inevitable movement forward that leaves the old largely at odds with the new. When life was simple, “You didn’t have to advertise your business because the look of the building would tell you what it was”, order and tradition could be counted on. The threat of the future, and the chaos it promises is regarded here as a coming summer storm. A bittersweet relief from the Texas heat.
So if you’re in the Big Apple any time soon check out Dividing the Estate–you might find yourself back home.