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BWW Review: DIVIDING THE ESTATE at The Studio, Holden Street Theatres

BWW Review: DIVIDING THE ESTATE at The Studio, Holden Street TheatresReviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 22nd August 2019.

This, the multi-award winning company's second production for the year, Horton Foote 's 1989 black comedy, Dividing the Estate, marks the directorial debut of Libby Drake, co-founder of Red Phoenix. Founded in late 2016, this is the tenth production for the company whose commitment is to present only plays that have never been seen before in Adelaide. What they thought was a bold and risky move turned out to be a major attraction, with this production close to selling out before it even opened.

A common fault with directors presenting a comedy is to play it for laughs, over-emphasising key words and phrases to ensure audiences get the joke, and over-exaggerating every bit of business, disrespecting the intelligence of the audience. Drake has, instead, focussed on establishing authentic characters, allowing the comedy to come naturally. The result is an hilarious night at the theatre.

It is 1987 in Harrison, Texas, and the children of the dysfunctional Gordon family are circling the head of the family, Stella, like starving sharks around a dying fish. Her children, Mary Jo, Lucille, and Lewis, are arguing over whether or not they should carve up their mother's estate now, instead of waiting for her to die. They hope to sell the property quickly in a time of falling values, and avoid a big tax bill. This is a privileged, entitled family living as they always have, ignoring the fact that times have changed.

Lewis is an alcoholic and a gambler who has already had large amounts of his inheritance advanced to him to cover his losses and who now needs more. Mary Jo, her husband, Bob, and her two daughters, Emily and Sissie, are living way beyond their means, not helped by Bob's numerous failed get rich quick investments, and she has had even greater advances on her inheritance. To obtain an advance, they have to have it approved by Lucille's son, Son, who administers the estate for his grandmother, Stella. Lucille is happy to leave everything as it is, and Stella would love to have it return to the way that it once was. Tired of this, Lewis and, especially, Mary Jo want to divide the estate and have their full inheritances straight away. They take the term, 'dysfunctional family', to a completely new level.

Jean Walker has performed with just about every company in Adelaide except, until now, Red Phoenix. She remedies that by appearing as the octogenarian matriarch, Stella Gordon. Stella's memory is not always accurate, but she remembers the early days of the century, when the cotton fields, with cheap labour and a product in high demand before synthetics took over, gave the family a huge income and social status. She still lives as though that was the case. Walker captures the character beautifully, bringing a touch of old-world charm and elegance to the role, along with a degree of vagueness when dealing with the present.

Two of Stella's children, Lucille and Lewis, live with her in the sprawling family home, as does her grandson, Son. All three children receive a regular allowance and Son, working for the estate, receives a payment for his work, the only one of the family who actually earns his income. Easy-going Lucille accepts the situation and has no problem with maintaining the status quo, Lewis wants to be able to draw against his inheritance whenever he wishes, without restrictions, and Mary Jo wants everything now.

Bob, who as about as much business acumen as a bowl of petunias, also wants it all now so that, in complete denial of his past total financial incompetence, he can manage the money and create a fortune, whilst the two selfish daughters want access to the family fortune to live extravagant lifestyles.

Lyn Wilson gives another of her well-considered performances as Lucille, creating a thoroughly believable character, caught up in the mess and coping badly whilst trying to placate everybody and stand up for her son. It is a complex characterisation.

Brendan Cooney's Lewis is far from a one-dimensional drunk, with much subtlety and variation, from angry and belligerent when under the influence of alcohol, to contrite and regretful when sober. He presents a fully three-dimensional characterisation.

Cate Rogers embraces the avarice of Mary Jo, her one-track mind on nothing but the money and property that is coming to her, and the desire to have it all immediately. Her portrayal of Cate is fully rounded as the powerful and most demanding one of the trio.

Lindsay Dunn's Bob is a frustrated failure with delusions of competence, a character that he takes from desperation to disaster. Jasmine Leech, as Emily, and Nicole Walker, as Sissie, are a pair of self-indulgent siblings, already planning how to spend the money on themselves that their parents will inherit, and arguing over whose plans will cost more and who gets most. They are a fun double-act.

Mark Mulders plays the voice of reason, the sensible member of the family, Son, trying very hard to keep the family solvent against all odds. He brings out Son's loyalty to Stella and Lucille and his genuine concern for the financial future of the family in a sensitive performance. Laura Antoniazzi plays his fiancé, Pauline, a teacher at the local high school who, with Son, is the only other likeable person in the group. She gives us a vivacious, delightful young woman who, we hope, will not end up like the rest of them.

Eliza Bampton makes a brief, but energetic and memorable appearance, as Irene. You'll need a ticket to find out where Irene fits in.

The family maintains three (originally black) servants, with Wayne Anthoney as Doug, 92 years old and supposedly retired, but still insisting on serving dinner, a task that is beyond him, and becoming angry at others taking over his duties, setting him against Mildred and Cathleen. Anthoney gives a fine reading to the role of the irascible old retainer. Kate Anolak plays Mildred, with plenty of hustle and bustle, and Gabi Douglas, portrays Cathleen, whom Doug ridicules for trying to better herself through her college (which means university, outside of the USA) studies. These two have a good rapport as their characters close ranks against Doug, the three creating some lively interaction. There is as much discontent below stairs as above in this unhappy household.

Drake has successfully assembled a superior cast and created a first production of which she can be justly proud. I think that we can expect more to follow.

Kate Prescott's set establishes that this is a wealthy family, with quality furnishings and fittings, and right down to the crockery and cutlery. No detail is overlooked, and it is well lit, as always, by Richard Parkhill.

The season is selling out rapidly, so any delay in booking could mean that you miss out, and you'll be sorry if you do, so be quick.

Photography, Peta Grace

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