| I had great expectations when heading to the new and amazing Wyly Theater in Dallas' brand new Performing Arts Center Downtown. We were headed to see a play written by legendary American (Texan) playwright Horton Foote. Winner of two Academy Awards, an Emmy, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the National Medal of Arts. Foote, one of the greatest contributors to the arts in the past one hundred years, wrote some 95 plays, including The Trip to Bountiful and The Man from Atlanta and screenplays for such notable films as To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies.
Foote passed away last March and to commemorate his extraordinary contribution to the American culture venues all over the metroplex are participating in the Foote Festival, six weeks in which stage and movie theaters, schools and museums will present just a sampling of his many works.
Dividing the Estate initially gave me the feeling I was watching a repeat of an episode of Dallas or Dynasty. The play begins with the amazing Liz Mikel playing Mildred the Maid folding the bed linens in the yard as she sings. Let me go on record that I would pay to hear Liz sing the phone book, but I digress. It is 1987, the timeline is set by the news playing in the background announcing the latest news involving Tammy Faye Bakker and the happenings at the PTL.
This is the story of the Gordon Family, a wealthy family that made their money farming, but in the late eighties, things have changed for the Gordon clan and their fortunes are no longer worth what they once were. The family and the money is controlled by Stella Gordon who has placed all her trust in Son, her grandson, who manages the Estate and all that goes with it. Son manages to maintain a quiet calm demeanor even in the midst of everyone in the family being a complete mess.
Everyone in the clan is determined to convince Son it is in the best interest of the Estate and all involved that they divide the estate now, before mother Gordon passes. They package it nicely, they tell Son they simply want to evade the estate taxes they will have to pay by dividing after death, though it quickly becomes very clear they each have their own reasons for wanting the division now. Avoiding taxes is a convenient alibi, but in reality, they just all want the money now.
A few of the really interesting parts of the play for me were the fact that though this was 1987, they still live like it is the fifties with live in help that have been with them forever. That is so Texas, and the most interesting facet for me listening to Son's fiance Pauline talk about social issues relevant to her as a high school teacher. This was 1987, but she brings up the impending need for bilingual education and the fact that Japanese schools were turning out smarter graduates than our own schools. Interesting insight from Mr. Foote.
I did not expect a play about such a dysfunctional family greedily trying to get their matriarch to divide her estate before her death to be so hysterical, but I found myself laughing out loud over and over again. One of the things the Foote did here is he wrote an entire cast of characters that we can all identify with, because every family has each of these characters. The greedy one, the drunk one, the calm one, the one that is really in control.
This truly is an ensemble cast in the true meaning of the term. It was hard for me to pick just one actor as the standout, as I think each actor here does an amazing job, and is essential to making this play so amazing as a whole. That said, I always pick one actor that I think steals the show.
That said, a couple of honorable mentions first. Matthew Gray plays Son to Perfection. He is the calming force that keeps this family from completely losing it. Every family has one, because if they didn't all hell would break loose. He is a soothing calm like that lady that talks soft and does the love songs on the radio at night.
June Squibb as Matriarch Stella Gordon, wow, I was in a time warp. Some of the words from her mouth were words I have heard from my own grandmothers' lips. Her old school beliefs, but immense caring and compassion for those around her hit very close to home for me.
Special mention for SMU Meadows School for the Arts student Katherine Bourne, who only appears in the play briefly at the end, but her short appearance really sends the character of Mary Jo over the edge.
Which brings me to my show stealer. Nance Williamson as Mary Jo really took me all over the emotional map with her performance as the greedy and selfish daughter. If she was a drag queen her name would be Mimi Imfurst (say it three times fast). I found myself really irritated by her in the first act, she cared about no one but herself, and it really started to bother me. That is good acting. In act two almost everything she said made me laugh til I teared up, and without giving anything away, prayer has never been this funny.
The Wyly is an amazing space that seats 575 at its biggest, which in this configuration it is not. The set was amazing, and there is not a bad seat in the house. Getting into the theater was a bit of a challenge as there is only one stairwell up to the theater which created a bit of a jam at the top. We later learned that there are elevators on the other side of the lobby, use these. This space is stunning. Combine the industrial look with the intimacy of the theater they have hit all the right marks. After the play the huge glass walls on one side of the theater literally spun sideways to create giant openings for departure, I wish we could have come in that way. This was an amazing night of theater. The venue, the cast, the play. All were on target. I cannot recommend this enough.
Dividing the Estate runs through Saturday, April 9th at the Charles and Dee Wyly Theater Downtown Dallas. With tickets starting at only $15.00 there is no reason to miss this show. One tip, park in the parking garage behind the 7-11 on Routh cost is only $5.00 and there is a free art cart that will drop you in front of the theater. Get tickets at www.dallastheatercenter.org. While there check out their coming attractions, including Cabaret and The WizT. here is more info on all the events talking place during the Foote Festival at www.hortonfootefestival.com
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