Perhaps being an only child isn’t so bad after all.
That way, you’ll be spared the ugly and unseemly sibling shenanigans on display in Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate,” a scathing and very funny study of greed and entitlement among America’s crumbling upper class.
In the superb new Theatrical Outfit production, we find aging matriarch Stella Gordon (Mary Lynn Owen) contemplating her mortality while refereeing the bad behavior of her thankless, money-hungry progeny. It is 1987 in Harrison, Texas. The land-rich, cash-poor clan is on the verge of financial collapse. And their long-festering rivalries and petty grievances are about to be aired in a family feud that is distinguished by raucous behavior, keening sorrow and a stroke of fairy-tale karma.
“And they all lived happily ever after” is most assuredly not how things will end for this extended family of landowners and servants.
Foote, who died in 2009 just days shy of his 93rd birthday, ranks as America’s Chekhov. His epic “Orphan’s Home Cycle” rivals the grandeur of Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson. His sweetly sentimental “The Trip to Bountiful” describes the resilient spirit of an old woman who is determined to return to her homeplace and devastated by what she encounters. His screenplays for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” won him a pair of Oscars, his “The Young Man from Atlanta” the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
And then there’s “Dividing the Estate.”
As directed by Tom Key and starring an ensemble of some of Atlanta’s finest, it plays like a delicious mix of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” the ’80s TV sitcom “Mama’s Family” (thanks in part to Owens’ Vicki Lawrence-style caricature) and Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.”
Owen’s irascible mama makes a memorable entrance — hunched over and with her ministering good daughter Lucille (the wonderful Marianne Hammock) serving as a kind of human walker. Lucille’s boy, Son (Scott Warren), is the estate manager and a veritable ATM machine for his souse-uncle Lewis (Bart Hansard) and big-haired, social-climbing Houston aunt, Mary Jo (Tess Malis Kincaid).
To the family dinner from hell that is the centerpiece of Act One, Mary Jo brings along her hard-up husband Bob (Mark Kincaid) and her spoiled-sour daughters Emily (Caroline Freedlund) and Sissie (Jessica Miesel), who are like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters compared to Son’s earnest fiancée, Pauline (Elizabeth Wells Berkes). Meanwhile, servants Mildred (S. Renee Clark), Cathleen (Danielle Deadwyler) and the ancient Doug (Rob Cleveland) engage in a kitchen drama that will spill onto the living-room floor.
While the manipulative Stella and the devoted Son favor keeping the estate in one parcel, Lewis and Mary Jo — heavily in debt and beleaguered by offstage troubles — want to cash out. Loss, laughter and a surprising twist of fate ensue.
As a metaphor for the dynasty’s deep roots, designers Isabel A. Curley-Clay and Moriah Curley-Clay construct a tree whose ancient, crocodilian roots crop up at the edges of the house’s formal parlor, with its elaborate window treatments and one of those curvy Victorian settees that signifies Old South plantations and cotton. Jonida Beqo has a delightful time dressing the women of the group in tacky ’80s clothes.
With an ensemble of 13, this kind of sprawling, old-fashioned, cost-prohibitive show is becoming something of a vanishing species in American theater. We should all be happy that Theatrical Outfit gives us this glorious revival, which so proudly honors the work of a master dramatist who is still getting his due.
“Dividing the Estate”
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Also 2:30 p.m. April 10. Through April 20. $20-$35. Theatrical Outfit, The Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849; theatricaloutfit.org
Bottom line: Terrific