Dividing the Estate

Horton Foote's comedy may be a crowd-pleaser, but it's hardly a classic

Inheritance Tex: (seated, l-r) Elissa Castles, Barbara Chisholm, Audrey Henderson; (standing) David Jarrott
Inheritance Tex: (seated, l-r) Elissa Castles, Barbara Chisholm, Audrey Henderson; (standing) David Jarrott (Photo courtesy of Kirk R. Tuck)

Dividing the Estate

Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 476-0541
Through July 1
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

You could be forgiven for assuming that you were just out sick the day that Dividing the Estate was taught in school. With the play's legendary author, pedigree (it received a Tony nomination for Best Play during its Broadway run), and old-fashioned presentation and tone, it's virtually indistinguishable from the sort of familiar American plays that high school drama class shelves are full of.

Horton Foote's comedy, set in late-1980s Texas, is about a family preparing for the inevitable passing of its ailing matriarch, Stella Gordon (Marijane Vandivier). Some members want to see the family estate split among the three children and several grandchildren, while others support Stella's vision to never see the land and home on which they've lived broken up. It sounds like a familiar plot, but the production history on Dividing the Estate is light: a brief run in New Jersey in 1989, then a gap of 20 years before Broadway picked up on it and the play subsequently began making the regional theatre rounds.

The familiarity in Dividing the Estate can be comforting, though, especially when its setting lends the proceedings the chance for some easy gags at the expense of Eighties style and East Texas excess. (Barbara Chisholm, dressed in full suburban Houston grotesque, leads the big-haired charge as the urbane sister, Mary Jo. Full disclosure: She is married to Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires.) There are a lot of things an audience can find to appreciate in Zach Theatre's production: It has strong anchoring performances from Janelle Buchanan as the level-headed sister Lucille and Joey Hood as family bookkeeper Son. There's funny, scene-stealing acting from Chisholm, as well as Audrey Henderson and Elissa Castles, who play her daughters. Foote's script is comfy and packed with over-the-top characters, and Cliff Simon's set effectively conjures a staid, antique-filled East Texas mansion. The production's eye for detail ensures that the magazines in the living room are from 1987 and the Sony Walkman onstage looks new.

Still, there are a lot of empty calories to Dividing the Estate that help explain why a work by a playwright as celebrated as Foote went largely unproduced for decades. A subplot surrounding the family's African-American servants fails to resonate, the play's major conflict revolves around outdated aspects of inheritance tax law, and the protagonists' greed and selfishness plays to the audience's superiority complex. Dividing the Estate is set up as a crowd-pleaser, and given the Zach production's indulgence of the script's excesses and the cast's sharp timing, audiences are likely to be pleased. But if the play's pedigree left you looking for a classic – rather than a slight, somewhat dated comedy – even a dazzling production won't help you find it.

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Dividing the Estate, Horton Foote, Zach Theatre, Marijane Vandivier, Barbara Chisholm, Janelle Buchanan, Joey Hood, Audrey Henderson, Elissa Castles, Cliff Simon

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