A Southern Family at Odds Over Their Estate

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 25, 2011

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Estate of affairs: From left, Christian Pedersen, Carla Belver, Graham Smith and Marcia Saunders fight over the family's wealth.

Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate is an old-fashioned drama. Although it debuted in 1989, Estate is the sort of big-cast, big-set play that was once a mainstay of American theater but has become all too rare today. The People’s Light & Theatre Company’s production is excellent, having enlisted a cast of 13—more actors than some companies hire in an entire season.

In Estate we encounter a Southern way of life on the brink of disintegration. The action takes place in the large home of the Gordon family in the small town of Harrison, Texas. It’s 1987 and money is tight—despite the fact that the Gordons have three loyal African-American servants (Cathy Simpson, Lou Ferguson and Aimé Kelly in a trio of strong performances), and a magnificent home (Tony Straiges’ glorious scenic design exudes Southern elegance and charm). Still, the once-bustling town is dominated by shuttered shops and silent streets. Even the Gordons, who trace their heritage in Harrison to the Civil War and who are used to the finer things in life, are feeling financially pinched. Perhaps the last remaining family in Harrison that still retains a vast family estate, the Gordons are land rich but cash poor. And with the exception of Son Gordon (the solid Christian Pedersen), who manages the estate for his grandmother, Stella (Carla Belver), no one in the family has ever held a job or seems particularly interested in getting one.

The conflict in Foote’s play is straightforward. Half the family wants to sell the estate and half the family (including Grandma, who has the final word on everything) wants to retain the land and home. Money is the topic of every discussion and the disagreement over the estate is threatening to tear the family apart.

Part of the reason for Estate ’s success is Hoote’s wonderfully natural dialogue. The most striking thing about the Gordons is that they are totally ordinary. There is nothing stupendous about any of the characters; no one does anything spectacular. And yet in the hands of Director Abigail Adams, Estate is one of the season’s most engrossing productions. 

There isn’t a false step taken by Adams’ impeccable ensemble, which is led by the inestimable Belver, who excels in family dramas. (She was nominated for a Barrymore for her role in the Arden’s All My Sons ). At 85, Belver is anything but fragile. She is tough without being harsh, maternal but not especially affectionate. To Stella, the estate ties the family together, but it is also a business. So when it comes to money, she is rarely sentimental. 

Other standouts in the cast include the reliable Marcia Saunders, Stella’s devoted daughter Lucille; Kathryn Peterson as Lucille’s opinionated sister Mary Jo; and Greg Wood as Mary Jo’s dramatically unsuccessful husband Bob. 

Foote once said, “I’d write plays even if they were never done again.” He passed away in 2009 at the age of 92, but his plays chronicling life in America’s South have garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and made him one of the nation’s most revered playwrights (he is also a two-time Academy Award winner for his screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies ). Perhaps because of the expense involved in mounting Foote’s large-scale plays, his works are rarely done in the Philadelphia area.

At a time when most plays and productions are downsizing, PLTC’s Estate is a reminder of how majestic and satisfying old-fashioned theater can be.

Through June 5. $25-$45. People’s Light & Theatre
Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. 610.644.3500. peopleslight.org

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