When Horton Foote died last year at the age of 92, America lost one of its most prolific and endearing dramatists. Foote, who was still writing until his last days, completed more than 60 plays and scripts during a career that spanned parts of seven decades. His many accolades include the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy, and two Academy Awards (one for his adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). A production of Foote’s last play to appear on Broadway, Dividing the Estate, opens locally this weekend.
Director Phil Funkenbusch says he and the cast are excited to introduce Foote’s comedy to Springfield-area residents. Estate, like most Foote creations, features a Southern and ensemble cast. Funkenbusch’s lineup includes Nancy Cole, Felicia Coulter, Mike Coulter, Patricia James-Davis, Robert Davis, Toshiana Gorens, Marian Levin, Harvey Mack, Ed MacMurdo, Cassie Poe, Nikkie Prosperini, Sarah Steinhour and Mary Young. Many of the 13 thespians gathered more than a year ago to read the play out loud. After the experiment, they decided to bring the show to life at New Salem’s Theatre in the Park. “This is probably the most comedic play Foote wrote, even though it’s not a laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s more of a gentle comedy, and we wanted to do something fun,” the director explains.
In Dividing the Estate, three generations of a family descend upon the matriarch’s Texas home to seize an early inheritance. Foote was renowned for his honest and robust depictions of Americana and was respected for the patient way he allowed the nuances of rural life to unfold. Estate is no exception. Although written in the late 1980s, the play is relatable today because it deals with a family’s overdependence on material wealth and timeless themes involving loss, change and survival. The featured family members are losing their homes and dealing with unemployment. “The characters deal with things we all deal with every day,” Funkenbusch explains. Ironically, the script contains a joke about an oil spill.
Although the production is indeed a comedy, it has serious undertones. Foote set most of his writings in a fictional Texas town — a thinly disguised version of his native Wharton — and dealt frequently with a sense of home. “Even with [Wharton] having turned into this ugly wasteland I hate, I just relax when I come back here,” the author once told The New York Times. Funkenbusch notices similar ideas in Estate. “We worry sometimes about change and about loss,” he says. “But there are hints of hope, too, because these characters experience a bit of reconciliation even while parts of life are gone.”
Funkenbusch and his actors want to translate the universal story well and took measures to layer every detail with sincerity. The show, for example, was moved from the open 475-seat outdoor venue to the intimate 200-seat indoor space. An important dinner scene was first rehearsed in an actor’s home over a real meal so the team could discover natural blocking and dialogue. “We want to try and make it look as real as possible. Thankfully, I found great actors who can take a difficult play and make it look easy,” Funkenbusch remarks. Good actors are especially important in a dialogue-heavy and character driven play with no defined villain.
Dividing the Estate is coming to the Springfield area almost 70 years after its writer’s first show appeared on Broadway, and Foote stayed active every day in between. He finished his last screenplay at the age of 90 when he drafted Main Street. The film, another story about big changes in a small town, stars Orlando Bloom, Colin Firth, Patricia Clarkson, Ellen Burstyn and Amber Tamblyn.
Less than a year since his passing, academics have already placed Foote high in canon of American playwrights alongside O’Neill, Wilder, Williams and Miller. The few critics he had would say Foote relied too much on his Texas roots and became a regional author. Others look past geography into his universal themes. In 1995, Foote explained his developing legacy and reputation to The Houston Chronicle. “Early on I said to myself that I would like to write a kind of moral and spiritual history of a place,” he said. “I don’t often say that because it sounds a little pretentious, I know. But that’s really what I set for myself.”
Performances at New Salem’s Theatre in the Park run Aug. 20-22 and 27-28 at 8 p.m. Get more info by calling the box office at 217-632-5440, or at theatreinthepark.net.
Zach Baliva is a filmmaker living in Springfield.