Clash of the Steel Magnolias

Illustration by Wes Duvall

There’s a lot to be said for end-of-an-era stories. The Leopard, The Cherry Orchard, The Magnificent Ambersons: The idea is to make an audience feel a collective wistfulness for a way of life that’s drifting out of sight forever. But Horton Foote’s comedy Dividing the Estate—in which a Texas family, circa 1987, laments the passing of small-town coziness and community even as they wonder how much money they’ll make once the genteel homestead is liquidated—isn’t wistful. It’s just exhausting, itself a two-hour era that can’t end soon enough.

The first act is barely on its feet when the family’s eightysomething matriarch, Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), and one of her two daughters, Lucille (Penny Fuller), launch into a meandering conversation about extended-family misadventures. It eventually develops that, for many years, members of this sprawling clan—including the dissolute yet sensible Lewis (Gerald McRaney) and the shrill, obsessive Mary Jo (Hallie Foote)—have been drawing money from the family estate. Now they’re wondering if it isn’t time to carve it up in a more permanent fashion, even though Stella is still alive. So the characters speak urgently and repeatedly about the need to “divaaahd the estate”—it takes them a while to get the phrase out, although not quite as long as it takes to actually divide the estate.

The idea is that we’ll laugh at the family’s eccentricities and foibles, even as we sense their suffering. And they do suffer some. Ashley’s Stella is a stereotypically southern fluttery queen bee with an iron will. She talks around and over her children without actually listening to them, although who could blame her? Foote’s Mary Jo is played as a gangly, squawky bird given to lots of eye rolling and arm flapping, as if she’s decided to convey the jokes in semaphore.

The laughs here are old-timey gentle titters. When a character explains to the family’s longtime black maid, Mildred (Pat Bowie), that a certain family member’s will is in probate, she exclaims, before wheeling around to head back into the kitchen, “Good Lord, probate! It’s always something!” It’s a mammy exit line of the kind seen in forties movies—not exactly offensive, but certainly tired. The whole enterprise has the feeling of a worn-out rug that’s been hung up for beating too many times. Dividing the Estate is harmless fun, which is good news only for those who fear being harmed by fun.

Dividing the Estate
By Horton Foote.
Booth Theatre. Through January 4.

Clash of the Steel Magnolias