AT ODDS Kerry Girogi, Shallcross, and Drowne.
All unhappy families may be unhappy in their own ways, but in the family-oriented South they also are likely to be entertaining. The outlines of those tendencies in Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate are sketched out in a shaky production by Epic Theatre Company at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (through August 24), directed by Gladys Cole.
Family dramedies are trickier to pull off than might appear from their being populated by ordinary people. Everyone who doesn’t come across naturally pops out like a drunken wedding guest. Fortunately, there are enough convincingly inhabited characters here to pull us into the story.
Attention swirls around octogenarian Stella (Carol Drowne). Although as a young woman she married her drunkard husband thinking she could reform him, she’s past such ambitions now. The play opens with her recounting family anecdotes, but in this quaint American milieu the only “Coke fiend” she can come up with is of the cola variety.
The family will be strongly affected by Stella’s inevitable and, considering her age, perhaps imminent demise. If she divides her sprawling Texas farmland among them before her death, they will benefit in terms of tax law, and the covetous impatience of several of them will be satisfied. But “you won’t do it while I’m alive, I’ll tell you that!” she informs them, adamant that the land remain undivided. There is even the possibility — horror of horrors! — that she could put the entire 5000 acres in a land trust, and no one would get a penny. In any event, the estate is in decline because the cotton it has always depended on is in decline, and the slowly dipping real estate market indicates that the sooner it is sold the better.
The most impatient, at the beginning, is Stella’s alcoholic son Lewis, played skillfully by Geoff White with desperate intensity at first and calm deliberateness when Lewis comes to his senses. He is also a gambler, so over the years he has been advanced $200,000 from his share of the inheritance. Even so, when he says that he needs yet another $10,000 because it’s “life or death,” Stella immediately complies, although money might have to be borrowed to pay the taxes that year.
His sister, Lucille (Mary Paolino), is as passive as a weathervane, but her son, called Son (Michael Shallcross), industriously makes up for her, taking care of the estate with patient diligence.
Drowne sets a tone of dignified presence for others to respond to, and Shallcross establishes a contrast to flightier family members by Son’s quiet dependability. He is so dutiful that years before, he left college at the beginning of his junior year to save the estate by managing it. In contrast to this stable pair is the volatile Mary Jo (Cherylee Sousa Dumas), sister to Lewis and Lucille. Self-centered and brash, the character is plausible, but unfortunately Dumas plays her with such unmodulated mania, unaccountably unrestrained by the director, that she throws the production way off balance. Mary Jo is bellows every obnoxious blurt. She is a bull in a china shop, while the play needs a calculating adult brat, brazenly breaking teacups one by one.