Chicago Theater Review: DIVIDING THE ESTATE (Raven Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 3, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


You can’t take it with you—but that doesn’t mean you go gently into that good night. Dividing the Estate, Raven Theatre’s latest offering, is the late Horton (The Trip to Bountiful) Foote’s last new play on Broadway. A valedictory swan song, this 2008 potboiler sums up the Texas dramatist’s grasp (as in chokehold) of the South and its shallow souls. Faulkner minus the long sentences, Foote’s chronic dialogue exposes the long memories and shortsightedness of overly rooted Dixie doodles. Not his best creation but very characteristic, Dividing the Estate bears a very generic title that, unfortunately, is rather accurate. In these two hours and two acts, Foote is at least as interested in the process of disputing a dubious legacy as the people who squabble in spite.

Tim Martin, J. J. McCormick, Millie Hurley-Spencer

The big question here is whether the estate, such as it is, gets divided at all. It’s 1987 and hard times have hit the very former ante bellum manse of the Gordon clan in Harrison, Texas (the literary equivalent of the author’s Gulf coast town of Wharton–and all small towns with tinier minds). Inheritance taxes threaten to consume what failed farming hasn’t (bountiful this dump just ain’t). The sole, weak hope is the prospect of oil and gas leases despite tumbling prices for both. In any case, testy matriarch Stella (marssie Mencotti in a feisty furor) won’t break up the 5,000 acres to satisfy her needy and rapacious brood. The fact that two siblings have already borrowed $500,000 off the domain’s diminishing returns is yet another cause for concern.

Angela Sandall, Kathryn Acosta, Millie Hurley-Spencer, JoAnn Montemurro, marssie Mencotti

These spawn are the good, housekeeping eldest daughter Lucille (Millie Hurley-Spencer, engaging and enduring), her dutifully unselfish son Son (stalwart Tim Martin) and his sweet fiancée and teacher (Eliza Stoughton); feckless Lewis (sadsack Ron Wells), a gambling tippler who’s gotten in trouble with a teenage waitress (blithe and bubbly Hillary Horvath) who he just might marry; and desperately greedy Mary Jo (JoAnn Montemurro, rampaging while still standing), whose Houston home is in foreclosure and whose financially-scheming husband Bob (always watchable Jon Steinhagen) has plans to turn the Gordon demesne into a tax-dodging trust. Completing the brood are Mary Jo’s teenage daughters (Kathryn Acosta and Angela Sandall), worthless airheads with permanent sneers on their scowling pusses.

Ron Wells, JoAnn Montemurro, Jon Steinhagen, Millie Hurley-Spencer, marssie Mencotti, Tim Martin, J.J. McCormick, Eliza Stought

Sidelined and uncomplainingly competent are the servants (BrittneyLove Smith and Shariba Rivers) and 92-year-old Doug (winsome J.J. McCormick), an ancient retainer given to feats of “conjuring” and whose too-transient memories are all that’s left of the Gordon heritage.

Angela Sandall, Kathryn Acosta

Amid the dithering dialogue with its plethora of local lore, gallows-humor gossip, and defensive denial, screaming quarrels punctuate the desultory action as if to kick-start a static situation. No venal plotting, as in the similarly themed The Little Foxes, or melodramatic pleas for pity, as in the equally anguished Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, lift this familiar fare above its relentless realism. Happily, Cody Estle’s forthright, bedrock staging thrives on the play’s emotional impasses and dramatic dead-ends. Raven’s 13 players feel right in every minute and game for every turn of the screw. Wryly, the ironic ending calls into question the predictive power of the play’s title.

Angela Sandall, BrittneyLove Smith, Shariba Rivers

And, not inconsiderably, there’s Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s miniature mansion of a set, a captivatingly accurate, historical tour-de-force, complete with Victorian entry hall, filigreed parlor, and faded dining room. (The only elements missing are the Spanish moss arching over the mint juleps on the veranda.) Along with Kate Murphy’s all-defining costumes, Kurt Ottinger’s telling lighting, Julia Carusillo’s proper props, and Christopher M LaPorte’s evocative sound design, Foote’s decaying world could not be more fully realized. Despite the script’s unshocking predictability, this stage is a play in itself.

Millie Hurley-Spencer, Tim Martin, JoAnn Montemurro, Jon Steinhagen, Eliza Stoughton

photos by Dean La Prairie

J.J. McCormick, marssie MencottiDividing the Estate
Raven Theatre
6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on March 28, 2015
for tickets, call 773.338.2177
or visit

Stage and Cinema‘s review of the Broadway
transplant of Dividing the Estate at the Old Globe

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