› What: “Dividing the Estate.”
› When: April 8-17.
› Where: Chattanooga Theatre Centre’s Circle Theatre, 400 River St.
› Admission: $12.50-$25 ($30 opening night).
› Phone: 423-267-8534 (box office open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday).
› Website: TheatreCentre.com.
› Friday, April 8: 8 p.m. curtain, opening-night gala at 7 p.m.
› Saturday, April 9: 8 p.m.
› Thursday, April 14: 7 p.m., with real-time captioning for hard-of-hearing patrons.
› Friday, April 15: 8 p.m., with Girls Night Out refreshments and post-show ghost-light session.
› Saturday, April 16: 8 p.m.
› Sunday, April 17: 2:30 p.m.
The members of the Gordon family are obnoxious, bitter, angry and hilarious.
There are two reasons outsiders laugh when they hear the Gordons talking. One, they are funny even when they are mean.
"And I think audiences laugh from relief when they thank God they aren't related to the Gordons," says Chattanooga Theatre Centre's Scott Dunlap, who has spent hours with the Gordons lately.
The CTC's upcoming play, "Dividing the Estate," by Southern storyteller Horton Foote, is all about the Gordons and a family-crisis meeting about how to divvy up mama Stella's land, jewelry and money. A weakened real-estate market may be a threat to the inheritance Stella's three adult children crave. The fact that Stella is quite alive, albeit in her 80s, doesn't dampen the greed of her potential heirs. There's drunken Lewis, lazy Lucille and Mary Jo, who hunts human weakness like a wolf stalking a clueless sheep.
"They're all horrible in completely different ways," Dunlap says cheerily.
The plot sounds a bit like "August: Osage County," Tracy Letts' 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, which became a 2013 feature film. But Foote wrote "Dividing the Estate" in 1986, almost 30 years earlier. Letts and Foote approach family dynamics very differently. Letts created a matriarch driven by hatred whose first response to most situations was a vitriolic attack.
Dunlap sees the Gordons as too clever to reveal their plotting in a frontal assault. Even when their conversation is genteel, it is like a magician's misdirection, often meant to dazzle or distract so no one can see the trick — or the coins disappearing into the trickster's hand.
"One of the amazing things about Horton Foote is that the audience is solving the puzzle or the mystery, separating what the character says from what he or she actually means," Dunlap says.
When the play premiered in 1986, critics from Variety and The New York Times insisted that anyone watching would find the family's scheming and feuding absolutely absorbing. But Dunlap says it hasn't been performed much since then. He wonders if it was overshadowed by the success of the 1985 film "The Trip to Bountiful," Foote's story about a widow who flees her daughter-in-law's constant complaints by hopping on a bus to find the ghost town that was once her childhood home. Geraldine Page won an Oscar for playing the widow, Carrie Watts.
"Dividing the Estate" may not have a sweet, whimsical widow, but it does have powerhouse female characters who draw an audience into the play, Dunlap promises. Coylee Bryan will play the formidable Stella, with Heather Thompson as scary Lucille.
"Our stage manager said she sees some of her family in the play, and probably everyone in the audience will recognize one of their relatives in one of the characters onstage — then they will be glad that they don't see themselves," Dunlap says, then laughs heartily.
Contact Lynda Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6391.