Don Bauder 6:07 a.m., May 21
There's more to Horton Foote's play than meets the eye. It's 1987. Stella Gordon, an aging matriarch, wants to keep her estate in Harrison, Texas, intact after she dies. But her children - like King Lear's, like the grabby family in Osage County, and like the lion cubs in winter currently at North Coast Rep - want to tear the land, and tradition, apart.
Their stately manse, on ten acres, is an anachronism amid declining real estate values and double-digit unemployment. Even people who appear successful, like daughter Mary Jo's family, aren't.
Things fall apart in sections. Foote gradually introduces succeeding generations: Stella, her three children, and then their children (the servants mirror this three-tier pattern). The arrival of a new character changes the ways we see the others. Concern for preservation gives way to degrees of greed, and finally to a profoundly selfish teenage daughter shouting "who cares?"
Few members of the Gordon clan have ever worked. They receive monthly stipends. Two have borrowed six-digit amounts from the estate already. By play's end, all masks are down. And Stella, from beyond the grave, may have found a way to keep the estate intact.
Foote, a wonderful writer whose other works include A Trip to Bountiful and screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, has inscribed a subtle social history into what looks like, on the surface, a conventional how-to-slice-the-family-pie comedy-drama.
The Old Globe's production, however, is all surface. And can't settle on a consistent tone.
This is a puzzle, since most of the cast have performed the play before, even on Broadway. And Michael Wilson received a Tony nomination for directing it on the Great White Way.
The actors perform as if in isolation. Most settle for types with little specificity. Even their reaction times vary.
To quote a Reader headline Bill Owens wrote years ago, the play is "Southern Fried Chekhov." But the cast can't settle on a consistent skillet.
As anticipated, Elizabeth Ashley gives a bravura performance as Stella. A titan in decline, she will not go "gentle" into that good night. The director, however, has her sit a tad off center-stage, and keeps her there, which makes for a static picture.
Penny Fuller fares well as Lucille, the oldest and most chipper of the siblings. Hallie Foote's Mary Jo, who explodes into histrionics, would be a laugh riot if so many of the other cast members - especially Horton Foote, Jr., and Devon Abner - weren't so bland. She has stiletto-sharp timing and has Mary Jo down to a T. But in this toned-down setting she comes off as over-the-top.
On Jeff Cowie's richly-detailed set, lit too brightly by Rui Rita, everything in the family home looks brand new. And the downstage living room is so wide that in many of the scenes actors at each end must make, it seems, a toll call.