Hallie Foote and her brother Horton Foote Jr. during rehearsal of "Dividing… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Audiences who see Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate," opening Thursday at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, will experience two hours of a family's comically desperate, talons-baring tussle over whether and how to cash out a 5,000-acre homestead in southeast Texas that's been passed down from generation to generation.
But behind the scenes, the story line is just the opposite. There, the agenda is a family's unified, concord-filled effort to keep a theatrical legacy intact, celebrate it and carry it forward.
Horton Foote's two older children, Hallie and Horton Jr., are among the onstage combatants in San Diego, playing siblings Lewis and Mary Jo — he a bibulous ne'er-do-well and she a marvel of instinctive, unadulterated self-interest, traits that in the right hands can be hilarious. Her 2009 Tony Award nomination in the part would suggest that's the case.
Hallie's husband, Devon Abner, plays Lewis and Mary Jo's nephew, who stays relatively calm and sensible amid a storm whose gathered forces also include Broadway stalwarts Elizabeth Ashley and Penny Fuller as the family's matriarch and elder sister. The director, Michael Wilson, has been personally and professionally close to the Footes since 1991, making him "almost an adopted member of the … family," according to "Horton Foote, America's Storyteller," Wilborn Hampton's 2009 biography of the playwright.
Working until his death three years ago, just shy of his 93rd birthday, Foote wrote more than 60 plays, including "The Trip to Bountiful" and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta." Known for his gracious manner, he also wrote extensively for film and television, including Oscar-winning scripts for the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" and his original 1983 story, "Tender Mercies."
Since the late 1970s, Hallie Foote, 61, has been the fulcrum of many a cast of her father's plays (Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page, Robert Duvall and Jean Stapleton are other notables who've starred in shows from his 70-year oeuvre).
Horton Jr., 59, got in on the act in the early 1980s. Before switching to the restaurant business in 1995, when he opened Tavern on Jane, a folksy neighborhood spot in New York's Greenwich Village, he played opposite Hallie in three films, a television movie and three stage productions of their father's work, and a staging of "God's Pictures" by their playwright youngest sibling, Daisy Foote.
The San Diego incarnation of "Dividing the Estate" extends an informal tour that began off-Broadway in 2007, then continued through 2009 on Broadway and at Hartford Stage, the Connecticut company then run by Wilson. Last fall it resumed with more or less the same cast at Houston's Alley Theatre. When Horton Jr. learned that the role of Lewis had opened up in San Diego, he put in a bid for his first part in more than 16 years.
A sudden onset of tears constricted his voice as he tried to convey what it means to be able to reinhabit the small-town world his father created and, through that, to walk with him again after his death.
"I'm having a great time, and I'm just so grateful I get this chance to do this one more time," he whispered.
Hallie, sitting beside her brother during their lunch break from rehearsals, jumped in with sisterly solicitude, telling a story to illustrate how crying on happy occasions is a family-wide trait. At Daisy's wedding, her role was to read something her father had written for the ceremony. The elder Foote assured her, "'If you get too emotional, just tap me on the shoulder and I'll read it.' So I got up and started to cry, and I looked at him, and he went, 'You're on your own,' and he started sobbing."
Like playwright August Wilson and novelists such as William Faulkner and John Updike, Foote repeatedly re-created the place where he grew up — Wharton, Texas, which he renamed Harrison in his plays. Often, the stories are based on true family lore; he modeled the characters in "Dividing the Estate" after his grandmother and aunts and uncles. After a commercially fallow period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, when he and wife, Lillian, were raising their four children in a small town in New Hampshire, Foote began a comeback with "The Orphans' Home Cycle," a sequence of nine plays that includes a retelling of his parents' romance.
Hallie didn't take up acting until she was in her mid-20s, after a stab at public relations in Boston. Her father helped her find teachers in Los Angeles, and while watching her perform in one of his plays in 1977 at a small L.A. theater, he realized his daughter was precisely the actress he needed to play his mother as a young woman.