Family Ties

Family Ties A Southern family braves the changing times and challenges to its life of privilege in Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate.
Gerald McRaney in the Off-Broadway run of Dividing the Estate.
Gerald McRaney in the Off-Broadway run of Dividing the Estate. Photo by James Leynse

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Horton Foote is a one-man trip to bountiful all by himself — the bounty being almost as many truth-spreading plays in a wondrously procreative lifetime as there are leaves on a tree.

"All my things," he says one recent afternoon at the end of the day's rehearsal, "are based on people" — the people, mostly, he's known or known about all his life, the people in and around the city of Houston and the small town of Wharton, TX. "Then I mix them up."

Horton Foote — I once wrote — "writes the way people talk, or the way you think they talk, or the way you wish you thought they talk, or once did talk, in your mind's eye (and ear)." Now actress Hallie Foote, daughter of Horton Foote, says, sitting beside him at that same rehearsal, "When I start working on one of his plays, I begin to hear people I've met" — people from anywhere, not just Texas. Human beings.

Some years ago, the Pulitzer Prize- and Oscar-winning playwright was delivering a lecture at a college in North Carolina. "At the end," says Foote, "a young guy came up and asked what he should try to do: go into movies, go into television, go into theatre. I said, 'I don't give advice, but if it was me, I'd go into theatre.' Which he did. And his name is Michael Wilson, and he has directed five plays of mine." One of those five, Dividing the Estate — written in 1987 and until now only seen regionally — is at this very moment in its New York premiere as a Primary Stages production at the 59E59 Theaters (through Oct. 27).

Dividing the Estate is a play about just that: a family squabbling over whether or not to divide the estate — a fine old house and extensive but outworn farmlands — that, put together by a carpetbagging Yankee great-grandfather just after the Civil War, has kept these later generations in comfort and cash all their lives. Their once gracious community is now given over to fruit stands, fast-food joints and oil rigs.

An all-star cast is headed by Elizabeth Ashley as a domineering materfamilias who is bound and determined that the estate shall not be broken up, even after her death. Hallie Foote is Mary Jo, one of her daughters — rapacious, deeply in debt, gabby, not uncharming — and if she reminds you of Emma Bovary and/or Regina Giddens, so be it. Devon Abner plays the grandson who has toiled to keep the whole estate afloat all these years. Abner is Hallie Foote's real-life husband. They first met in 1979 in an acting class conducted by Horton Foote, so this really is a family affair.

And Horton? He's 91 now, and hard at work on a new play (about a tax assessor who feels sorry for the assessed) and a new screenplay (about tobacco barns and industrial waste). You can't keep a good kid down.

Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley
Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley Photo by James Leynse