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Review: The Foote Festival’s Texas Portrait

by Jerome Weeks 23 Mar 2011 4:09 PM

Playwright Horton Foote provided us with a long-term chronicle of changing-unchanging Texas life, and the Horton Foote Festival allows us to see that panorama — in front of Texas audiences, who pick up on the points about Methodists or Mexicans, real-estate bankruptcies and Whataburger. Jerome Weeks reviews the Dallas Theater Center’s uproarious ‘Dividing the Estate’ and Stage West’s gentler ‘Talking Pictures.’



June Squibb as Mama. Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux

For the Horton Foote Festival, 17 arts organizations in North Texas have chosen to celebrate the plays and films of Texas author Horton Foote. That’s partly because Foote provides a portrait of Texas life that spans the decades of the past century KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this review of two of the festival’s stage shows.

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The opening celebration for the Horton Foote Festival last week at the Winspear Opera House featured the playwright’s four adult children talking about their late father. His son, Horton Foote Jr,. took the occasion to note one of the pleasures this festival offers. We can see his father’s plays in front of Texas audiences: “They get it,” he said.

Texas audiences don’t catch all the in-jokes in New York plays. But judging from the laughter that’s greeted the Dallas Theater Center’s production of Dividing the Estate, we appreciate an exchange like this one. Mama, the formidable matriarch of the Gordon clan in Harrison, Texas, asks about her young granddaughter’s ex-husbands.

Stella (June Squibb): Did they marry boys from here?
Lucille (Gail Cronauer): No, they were both Houston boys
Stella: Were they well-connected?
Lucille: They were both lazy and no-good, according to Mary Jo and Bob. But they came from lovely families.

Dallas audiences are going to take to Dividing the Estate in a big way. This is a play that gets laughs out of a Whataburger counter girl. And director Joel Ferrell’s production is superb — from the acting ensemble to designer John Arnone’s set. For a designer who fears he doesn’t do well with realistic sets, Arnone is the first one to succeed in making the Wyly Theatre feel both intimate and grand. For the interior of the Gordon family home, he’s pushed the set forward with twin, handsome rows of gigantic Greek Revival columns across the back, which give the whole scene its impressive presence. But this also preserves the thrust stage out front as the main playing area, where the audience can feel as though we’re practically eavesdropping in the Gordons’ living room.

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 10: The Dallas Theater performs Dividing the Estate during a final dress performance in Dallas, TX, on Thursday, March 10, 2011.

Gail Cronauer and Matthew Gray. Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux

The happy reception this comedy is likely to get from North Texans will be ironic, though. Dividing the Estate is not a Texas-flattering play; it’s as close as Foote got to pointed satire. Dividing the Estate has the same concerns as Foote’s other comedy, Talking Pictures, currently at Stage West. They both track modern life wreaking havoc on small-town Texas. With Talking Pictures, it’s technology. The arrival of motion-picture sound in the late 1920s is killing the livelihood of a young mother, a silent-movie pianist. In Dividing the Estate, it’s that very 1980s recession, the one fueled by low oil prices and the savings-and-loan scandal in Texas. In Foote’s play, it may well finish off the century-old Gordon family estate.

But then, family members have certainly assisted in that decline (and the decline of their town). They’ve indulged their self-destructive behaviors while borrowing from (and depleting) their future inheritance. They shape up as one of the crasser, more ill-mannered and entertaining Texas families since the Ewings.

Stella (June Squibb): Lewis?
Lewis (Kurt Rhoads): Yes, Mama
Stella: I smell liquor on your breath. Have you been drinking?
Lewis: Yes, Mama.
Stella: So early in the morning?
Lewis: Yes, Mama.
Stella: I don’t allow liquor in this house.
Lewis: I know that, Mama. I don’t drink it in this house.

If the kindly pianist in Talking Pictures leads a life of quiet desperation, the Gordons lead lives of noisy obliviousness. Most – not all, but most – are complacent, self-centered and insensitive. They face a crisis that many Texas families have encountered through the years: They may be land-rich, but they’re cash-poor. And Mama won’t sell off the family estate to help her spoiled children pay off their debts.

Foote clearly has in mind two classic comedies: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, about ineffectual Russian aristocrats unable to keep their family’s prized orchard, and Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes, about a Southern family’s vicious in-fighting over money. Even so, all the talk of foreclosure and bankruptcy makes Dividing the Estate reverberate with the latest economic news. It’s at once current and classic.

The humor at the Theater Center is anchored at first by the family’s aged black servant who sees an entire way of life passing. It’s a role that also recalls The Cherry Orchard, and it provides an acting opportunity seized by Akin Babatunde, one of several old-school Dallas Theater Center company members brought back for this production. Somewhat deaf, demanding precedence among the servant class and bellowing his out-of-synch memories, his Doug delightfully dominates the first act. But then Nance Williamson takes over — another DTC veteran. She plays a vulgar daughter, grasping at the family fortune – clearly echoing Regina in Little Foxes. And Williamson plays all the brashness to the hilt.

Mikaela Krantz, Thomas Ward and Dana Schultes in Talking Pictures

At Stage West, Talking Pictures doesn’t have such extreme characters; it’s a smaller, gentler comedy. There’s a quiet understatement in director Jim Covault’s fine production that’s actually more Horton Foote-like than Dividing the Estate. It’s lovingly embodied by Dana Schultes as the picture-show pianist and Thomas Ward as a shy bricklayer who comes courting her with his own marital entanglements. But much like Babatunde and Williamson in Dividing the Estate, the show is just about stolen by Mikaela Krantz as a happy, chattering, movie-loving girl who clearly is bursting at the seams to get out of this dusty little town. It’s also typically Foote-like: Just when you think Talking Pictures is wrapping up too neatly, too conveniently, the playwright unravels his ending a bit, leaving emotions dangling, tugging at us. He keeps it real.

Perhaps the differences between the two plays can be summed up like this: In Dividing the Estate, the Gordons are (mostly) mocked because they’ve essentially abandoned many of the small-town values found in Talking Pictures — values like prudence, modesty, courtesy, faith and resilience. They’ve opted instead for the Reagan ‘80s grab-it-all mindset. Not that Foote had any illusions about small town values. The more narrow-minded characters in Talking Pictures are also (gently) mocked, particularly when it comes to racism and religious prejudice.

Yes, in Dividing the Estate, there are a few decent, admirable characters – notably Son, who’s kept the estate together and is played with simple dignity by Matthew Gray. But the crass and the greedy predominate, although they don’t necessarily prevail. Foote rarely considered any of his characters beyond redemption, but he gets close here. He punishes them — by having them live with each other. Foote has a sense of justice.

Also a sense of mercy. We see these plays, as Horton Foote Jr. said, with Texas audiences who “get them.” The Foote Festival also lets us see a rare thing, an ongoing, unfolding portrait of life in Texas. We see Foote’s recurring concerns. In both Dividing the Estate and Talking Pictures, his Texans have a comic fear of and ignorance about Mexicans and other foreigners. There’s a funny but simmering dispute over who’s a Methodist or Baptist or, God forbid, a Catholic. Big-city Houston is a source of the fast and the greedy and the shallow, while small towns may be more pleasant, they’re also more insular and nosy. And both plays have two young women who don’t represent the brightest mental prospects for our future.

But in both plays there’s also a warmth and kindliness. We Texans should enjoy and appreciate Horton Foote more than we do.

He forgives Texans — a lot.

DTC photos by Brandon Thibodeaux