Tex Flex

A southern family wrestles for money in Ensemble's Dividing the Estate

There are certain kinds of Texans, those "all hat and no cattle" good ol' boys and gals with larceny in their selfish little hearts. And a few of those craven characters show up in one delightfully nasty family in Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, now at Ensemble Theatre.

Writing with the rough musicality of the Texas he knew so well, the Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning Foote fashions a quietly funny yet devastating portrait of a clan intent on devouring itself from the inside. And under the pitch-perfect direction of Sarah May, an exceptional cast delivers a passel of laughs as we watch the Gordon family clamber over each other to survive.

These folks have been contentedly feeding off their large land holding for years, but the real estate market is depressed in 1987, and tax bills are coming due with little cash in the bank. The acid-tongued octogenarian Stella (a brusque and incisive Bernice Bolek) is adamantly opposed to the financial strategy mentioned in the title.

But she is beset by her aging children, who exhibit a variety of problems. Lewis is a drunk and totally dependent on family handouts, while the predatory Mary Jo, with her glad-handing husband Bob and two grasping daughters in tow, are facing financial doom and desperate to latch onto their slice of pie. Sister Lucille tries at times to smooth things over, but she too has an agenda.

Lucille's son, called Son, is managing the estate and seems the most sensible of the bunch. But he is about to marry Pauline (Laurel Johnson), a young schoolteacher who seems like a guppy in this shark tank. Also on hand are the African-American family retainers: ancient Doug (an excellent Gregory White) and his two kitchen mates, Mildred (Renee Matthews-Jackson) and young Cathleen (Nadine Ndanema).

The joy of this production is listening to how the playwright weaves each of these mostly self-centered people into a glorious tapestry of deception and acquisitiveness. Even when large events occur (there are two deaths during the proceedings), these people never lose sight of their one purpose in life: padding their own nest.

As Mary Jo and Lewis, Valerie Young and Robert Hawkes draw indelible portraits of Texas greed writ small. Pursuing her desire to glom onto the estate, Young's Mary Jo is a comically forbidding treat from start to finish. And Hawkes makes Lewis a mangy dog of a man, snapping to be given his dinner and then groveling once he's been fed. As Son, Aaron D. Elersich joins with Anne McEvoy as his mother Lucille to form the somewhat stable center of this family, which would otherwise go nuclear in the worst possible way. And Mark Cipra oozes unctuousness as Bob.

Playing like August: Osage County minus over-the-edge psychosis, Dividing the Estate is at times a bit too talky. But that being said, it's clear that talk is how these characters survive, dredging up the past and leveraging any perceived advantages to get what they want. And from that perspective, this talk is golden.

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