A little over a year ago, Palm Beach Dramaworks opened its Carbonell-nominated production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 masterpiece about, among many other things, housing. Now, Dramaworks is back with another play that takes on the subject more directly, if less memorably, in Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate.” This time, we’re not witnessing the hardscrabble lives of poor blacks but the mostly privileged lives of upper-crust whites in a fictional Texas town in 1987—a rambunctious and, it almost goes without saying, dysfunctional clan and their extended families, whose rote bickering and disastrous family dinners lend comparisons to the superior “August: Osage County.”
As with “August,” the ensemble is led by a dominant, aging matriarch, Stella Gordon (Mary Stout), who is forced to confront the reality that, with the Black Monday stock market crash, declining home values, and vulturine children desperate to divide her lavish estate once she kicks the bucket, the times are indeed a’ changin’. More than one character will be buried by the end of the play.
We’re immediately struck by Jeff Modereger’s set design, which is an especially gorgeous and detailed living room interior, even for Dramaworks’ high standards. With its emphasis on mahogany finishes, Queen Anne-style furnishings and heavy drapes, the set exudes a whiskeyed, clubby, anachronistic ambience—a functional relic whose inhabitants likewise hearken to an earlier time. The family’s 92-year-old butler, Doug—played by John Archie, in another of his bracing, unsettled, deliriously possessed performances—speaks of cemeteries divided by race, and the Gordons’ staff of “help” are all of a certain color, a tradition held over from slavery.
Everything about the play, it seems, is old; even its young people sound old. Its ideas do, too; the concept of avaricious heirs coming home to roost is as ancient as Shakespeare, and for all of Foote’s 13 characters, I didn’t see any on the Dramaworks stage that felt especially novel. For a playwright of Foote’s importance, “Dividing the Estate” seems disappointingly lightweight.
That said, there’s not a subpar performance in director William Hayes’ carefully chosen cast, and some of the acting is exceptional. (Also, Texans will appreciate the mostly spot-on accents assisted, in this case, by a dialect coach; “handsome” sounds like “haintsome.”)
Rob Donohoe’s Lewis, Stella’s blackest sheep, says as much with his gestures as with his staggered, nervous delivery, his actions suggesting the fidgety movements of an addict in withdrawal; his desperation is palpable. Kim Cozort offers a delightfully dark zeal to her judgmental, pampered Mary Jo, tempering the hard edges of arguably the least likeable of the Gordon offspring. Margery Lowe, as the schoolteacher fiancee to Stella’s grandson (Gregg Weiner), may play a beacon of unwelcome knowledge to the rest of the family, but for Dramaworks’ audience, she’s a ray of sunshine on a dark-as-night comedy.
And in Stout’s portrayal of Stella, the production comes as close as it gets to a dramatic catharsis, her mulish intransigence seeming ever-more justified with every labored trudge up and down the stairs of the home, in her frequent attempts to escape her callous kin. Stout must interpretation have a few decades to reach Stella’s age, but you wouldn’t guess it from her precise embodiment here. She knows her world is coming to an end, and the pain of her reminiscences gives the play its beating heart. Its soul, however, remains elusive.
“Dividing the Estate” runs through April 27 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $60. Call 561/514-4042 ext. 2, or visit palmbeachdramworks.org.