After 60 plays, Horton Foote still striving

A new performance of 'Dividing the Estate' finds the legendary playwright very much engaged in present-day issues.

Foreclosures, mortgages gone bad, cratering house prices, relatives squabbling over a rich dowager's will – it sounds as "now" as the nightly news. But in "Dividing the Estate," Horton Foote's play on these topics, the action takes place in 1987. Currently in previews in New York at Primary Stages' 59E59 Theaters, the play's première is Sept. 27. A period piece in some ways, it reveals how relevant the work of this 91-year-old playwright remains.

Foote, whose career has spanned 66 years since his first full-length play was produced in 1941, is not only the oldest living American playwright; he's also the most productive. More than 100 of his works (including 60 plays) have been produced for stage, film, and television. He's won Oscars for best screenplay adaptation ("To Kill a Mockingbird," 1962) and best original screenplay ("Tender Mercies," 1983). His teleplay "Old Man" won an Emmy in 1997, and his play "The Young Man from Atlanta" received a Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

Asked which work he's most proud of, Foote – a modest man who says he lives resolutely in the present – answers: "It's the one I'm working on, whatever it is." Pressed further, he says, "The thing I found most rewarding – because I admire him – was President Clinton giving me the National Medal of Arts. That kind of represented the whole country."

In making the award in 2000, President Bill Clinton noted that Foote's "work is rooted in the tales, the troubles, the heartbreak, and the hopes of all he heard and saw [in Foote's hometown of Wharton, Texas]… tales of family, community, and the triumph of the human spirit."

It's not just award-givers who hail Foote's work. Veteran actor Gerald McRaney (who recently starred in the CBS series "Jericho" and HBO's acclaimed "Deadwood") says Foote's writing was the lure that hooked him to perform in this production. McRaney cites the adage: "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage," and says, "When someone asks a question about his play and Horton answers, it is like being in a room with the oracle. The good fortune of this experience can't be overstated. Actors who rehearsed with Shaw or Wilder or Williams or Shakespeare in the room will know how I feel, but no one else."

Marion Castleberry, professor of theater arts and director of the graduate theater program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is the leading expert on Foote's work. He says Foote's plays are "probably the greatest character studies of any American playwright who ever lived. More than anyone else, he's given us a history of America."

With his upright posture, sugar-white hair, and sea-green eyes, Foote's thin frame is whittled down to sinew and soul. His conversation is peppered with phrases like, "I'm very grateful for all the awards and often in awe of what's happened to me."

He says he's currently grateful for a dream cast in this 13-character ensemble piece, including the playwright's daughter, Hallie, and grande dame of the theater Elizabeth Ashley. According to Ashley, Foote is "one of the greatest American dramatists, because he takes you into the center of the middle of the marrow of that which can only be American. It's extraordinary how timely this play is."

Although a comedy, the play revolves around serious themes, like the search for (or rejection of) connection, identity, home, and family. The character Hallie Foote plays swoops down on the family mansion like a vulture, bickering with her siblings over the value and distribution of their legacy. She's a comic character but never a caricature. She explains that her father eschews stereotypes and cheap laughs: "When you go deeper, there's a lot at stake," she says.

"This play came from long observation of dividing the estate," the playwright explains, which "seems to incur feelings of insecurity, anger, or frustration."

"I've seen so many families that have gone through all kinds of stress and strain," he adds. "And, though I'm not a prophet, I think these people have lessons to learn. We don't preach or criticize them, but the lessons will be apparent."

The play's setting in the 1980s "was a very specific time in the South and particularly in Houston and my hometown," says Foote. "There were so many foreclosures. It was a time of great despair economically."

For Castleberry, the play shows a family holding on to a world that doesn't exist anymore and trying to come to grips with change. "It's all about things and money rather than virtue and values and relationships," he says.

Foote experienced a similar turning point in his family at age 10, when the family patriarch died. "My grandfather, who was a very distinguished man and the universe of this family, passed away very early. I don't know that the family ever recovered, but they did make adjustments," he recalls. "There was growth on some people's part, and for others it seemed to be a shattering experience. Change is necessary."

He takes his own advice to heart, collaborating with actors and director if a script requires change. During rehearsals, he trims or rearranges lines in pursuit of an ideal staging. "I'm always experimenting and searching," he says.

Ron Bernstein, Foote's film agent, notes, "Typically people repeat themselves as they age. It's assumed, as you get older, you get sentimental. But Horton gets more clear-eyed. His work gets better."

Foote admits, "I find myself in very strange territory. I don't know what I thought 90 would be. You wake up and there you are." His secret? "I just keep going," he says.

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