Dividing the Estate took the stage for Chamber Night and Student/Press Night. Local critic Benjamin Sharp has penned a review just in time for opening night:
Leave it to a family inheritance to bring out the worst in people. But leave it to Horton Foote to turn it into something hilarious and entertaining.
Wharton Plaza Theatre’s latest production of Foote’s Dividing the Estate – which runs from Feb. 3 through Feb. 12 – is a near-perfect blend of comedy, passion, and deep poignancy, taking place in a location exceedingly familiar to local audiences. Set in Harrison, Texas, (Foote’s fictional version of Wharton), the play focuses on a family’s attempts to cope with the devastating effects of falling oil prices of the mid-1980s. Co-directed by Plaza veteran Reagan Wrench and Darin Mielke, the play – deemed by Wrench as “the most Wharton play of Foote’s” – follows the intricate maneuverings of various members of the Gordon family as they attempt to secure their fair share of the family fortune in order to solve their own personal financial problems.
Stealing the show from the moment she steps on stage is Kathy Johse, in her third Plaza role as matriarch Stella. With her hair back tight in a bun, a sweater wrapped around her shoulders and her hand gripped tightly on a cane, Johse is the perfect embodiment of a wealthy, cultured, elderly Southern woman who has unexpectedly fallen upon hard times. Her line delivery is perfectly timed, her expressions are genuine, and her interaction with the other actors is entirely believable. The contrast between Johse and Jami Hughes and Keri Graff (who play daughters Mary Jo and Lucille, respectively) is especially entertaining. Johse’s calm, unruffled demeanor is offset by Graff’s rollercoaster of emotions and Hughes’s dramatic outbursts. Graff and Hughes are central pieces of the comedy, their expressions and line delivery notably different and yet somehow working in harmony, like the two bowls at opposite ends of a balance scale.
Adraylle Watson and Geneva Phillips, both veteran Plaza actors, form an even more perfect pair in their roles as house servants Doug and Mildred. Their ongoing banter and over-the-top antics rival that of Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page from a classic episode of the television sitcom Sanford and Son, and the audience roared in delight every time the pair graced the stage. A scene where Watson crumples to the floor in a fake fainting spell instantly brought to mind Foxx’s clutching of his chest and outcry that this “was the big one” every time things didn’t turn out the way he had planned. Phillips’s animated demeanor and caustic banter with the other characters was a highlight of the show. Adding fuel to Phillips’s fire is Valerie Brown, a Wharton County Junior College drama student making her Plaza debut as house maid Cathleen. Her eye rolls, blank expression and timely outbursts formed the perfect appetizer to Phillips’s main course.
Laurance Armour, in his second production with the Footelighters, is the quintessential drunken uncle in his role of Lewis. Stumbling across the stage and intentionally slurring his lines, Armour brings a foundational comedic element, creating near hysterics when he arrives at the show’s climax with his cute and precocious underage girlfriend, Irene, delightfully played by Wharton High School actress Reagan Dutcher. Hughes’s reactions to Dutcher’s incessant teenage banter are priceless.
Matthew Graff and Lauren Machelle are excellent as a young couple preparing for an upcoming wedding while taking an active role in the future of the estate. Graff, playing Son, serves as an anchor to the entire show, encapsulating the correct emotional state of his character and even singing a few lines from an old Gospel hymn in a remarkably pleasing voice. Machelle, as Pauline, is nothing short of fantastic as the idealistic schoolteacher approaching the daunting prospect of becoming one of the family. Her exchanges with Hughes had the audience rolling in the aisles.
Abbi Rodrigue and Makaya Brown are idyllic in their roles of sisters Emily and Sissie, their line delivery and mannerisms spot-on and entertaining. Rodrigue, in particular, has excellent voice projection, each line perfectly enunciated and audible. Brown’s emotional outburst late in the play (at the knowledge that her planned wedding would have to be downsized due to budgetary restraints) was stunning, causing several audience members to literally jump in their seats. Mark Szafarz, playing the pair’s father, Bob, is well-cast as the entrepreneurial, scheming brother-in-law, his delivery appropriately passionate, though there were moments where he became a bit tongue-tied.
Set designer Burke Wilkins does an excellent job of setting the stage, with fabulous furniture pieces – including an elaborate, full-sized dining room table and chairs – placed strategically to capture various stages of the action. A dinner-time scene later in the show, however, seemed to be awkwardly placed. The actors were too far back from the audience and several had their backs turned, making it difficult to pick up the dialogue. The lighting, operated by Kenneth Socha, establishes the appropriate mood, mimicking the interior of a large living space. The costumes are understated yet perfectly realized, ideal for a south Texas family in the mid-1980s. Costume designers Sarah Wilkins and Quinn Wrench should be congratulated for their realism and attention to detail. Others helping to make the production a success include Leeanna Shimek, Al Folmar, Christine Stransky, Russell Kacer and Sharon Joines.
This particular play was presented by Socha Enterprises Inc. and VonDerAu Ford of El Campo by arrangement with Dramatists Play Service Inc.
Benjamin Sharp is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Wharton County Junior College and spends his days writing press releases, photographing a wide variety of college activities and publishing the college’s e-Newsletter. He previously spent 14 years as a reporter/photojournalist at the Wharton Journal-Spectator and also operated a photography business. He holds an English degree from the University of Houston and has a lifelong love for the written word, penning four mystery novels. He lives in Wharton with his wife, Kristen, and their three kids, Madalyn, Andrew and Matthew.