The colorful Gordons of economically grim Harrison, Texas circa 1987 are torn between the importance of legacy and ensuring a viable monetary future in “Dividing the Estate,” Horton Foote’s 2008 Tony Award-nominated comedy having its local premiere at the Dayton Theatre Guild.
In the midst of juicy gossip and seemingly trivial chitchat, Foote’s delightfully dysfunctional and relatable characters sharply uncover the unnecessary strife that occurs when money overtakes love among relatives. As a child of the Great Depression, matriarch Stella (Gayle Smith) loathes talk of dividing the land that has been in her family for generations, but differing viewpoints, personal and practical, are astutely crafted with charming authenticity and occasionally moving poignancy. There is also a startling undercurrent flowing throughout the tale as the overt neediness of Stella’s three supposedly mature children Lucille (Barbara Jorgensen), Mary Jo (Julie Hauwiller) and Lewis (Greg Smith) morphs into a humorous, pathetic and sad display. A lot of blame can be passed around as infighting swells, but Stella’s continual willingness to spoil her brood speaks volumes about her parenting choices and the repercussions of those decisions contributing to her family’s fiscal woes spiraling out of control.
Director Ralph Dennler establishes a great pace and masters the tricky dynamics of uneasy conversation (excellently realized in the Act 1 dinner scene), but a firmly combative attack is missing among his principal players. As Stella rules the roost, Smith is sweet and genteel instead of an authoritative vessel of domineering intimidation, which diminishes her clout and the power of her arguments. Jorgensen, Hauwiller and Smith are a prickly trio that could be more explosive and galvanizing, particularly in Act 1. Still, Jorgensen is well-suited as a devoted, widowed caregiver wholeheartedly invested in her mother as well as her loyal son (the amiable Jeff Sams), Hauwiller grasps Mary Jo’s persnickety personality and fervent desire to be seen as an equal among her siblings, and Smith credibly portrays the agitation and disgust stemming from Lewis’ alcohol and gambling addictions.
Oddly, the standout performances derive from characters who are not Stella’s descendants, fueling the production’s off-kilter nature. Geoff Burkman shrewdly dials up the salesmanship as Bob, Mary Jo’s realtor husband intent to sway Stella to reassess her convictions with forward-thinking results. Franklin Johnson, as memorable here as he was last season at the Guild in “The Boys Next Door,” is absolutely wonderful as elderly servant Doug, a talkative fussbudget prone to jealousy and melodramatics who appreciates the Gordons and his place in their history far more than they could ever comprehend. In many ways, the bond between Doug and Stella, which dates back to Stella’s childhood, runs incredibly deep and gives the play emotional heft.
Claire Alemdar, Tori Easterling Doby, Lori Grissom, Lolita Long, Wendi Michael and Bernadette Rose commendably complete the folksy cast. Alemdar and Grissom’s ’80s-era dresses are notably designed by Carol Finley. Attractively accented by Blake Senseman’s set, “Estate” lacks intensity yet remains a relevant tale of sacrifice in today’s rocky financial climate.
“Dividing the Estate” continues through May 13 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. (Click here for show schedule). Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $10-$17. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org