“The estate won’t be divided until hell freezes over!” declares octogenarian Stella, the formidable family matriarch to members of her offspring itching to get their share of inheritance immediately.

Le Petit Theatre's production of “Dividing the Estate,” Horton Foote’s final Broadway triumph, is superbly directed by Maxwell Williams and performed by a top-to-bottom superlative cast. On stage through April 15, it's a must-see for theatergoers who revere richly textured, high-quality theater.

“This is a great play,” whispered a nearby audience member to no one in particular, but we all could agree.

The Gordon kin of Harrison, Texas, are rapidly unraveling, financially and psychologically, and it’s bringing out the most venal behavior in almost everyone.

Their once lucrative farming estate, which dates back to the Confederacy, is suffering from the late '80s economic freefall with rising taxes and plummeting real estate values. The gossipy, acrimonious clan finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy.

Stella (the priceless Brenda Currin) has three adult children who depend on her for their subsidy: Lewis (Carl Palmer) a low-life alcoholic gambler, dutiful Lucille (Mary Pauley) and the covetous, manipulative Mary Jo (Wendy Miklovic) who purportedly arrives for a friendly family dinner with her mercenary husband Bob (Silas Cooper) and her two eye-rolling, impatient daughters, Emily (Megan Barrios) and Sissie (Elizabeth McCoy).

“They won’t be here five minutes before they ask for money!” predicts Stella. And she’s dead on.

Lewis has borrowed $200,000 against his share of the estate and needs $10,000 more for hush money to the father of the high-school cutie Irene (Yvette Bourgeois) whom he’s fooling around with. This pales to the $300,000 debt jobless Mary Jo and Bob have accrued over the years.

The thankless task of managing the estate is left to Lucille’s son (Curtis Billings), called Son, who left college after the death of his father and is engaged to the sweet-natured schoolteacher Pauline (Elizabeth Bartley).

“Did you ever see a family like this one?” asks Lucille to Pauline whose deadpan silent reaction speaks volumes.

Even the household staff — the charmingly doddering 92-year-old Doug (Harold X. Evans), the guileless housekeeper Mildred (Carol Sutton), and young Cathleen (Shelbi Young) who despite Doug’s belittling ridicule wishes to study law — are also anxious to hear what share of the fortune will be theirs.

The highlight of Act One is a brilliantly staged dinner scene rivaling “August: Osage County,” filled with similar sniping but with a kinder, gentler veneer.

Deep down inside, Foote’s achingly real characters know they are born to lose. Their contemptible actions warrant sympathy because their stifled ambitions and desperate need is readily recognizable.

What makes “Estate” so charming is the bumbling incompetence of its conspirators. The hilarity of the action increases as the urgency of the circumstances compound.

Horton Foote, author of the endearing “Trip to Bountiful,” with his empathic heart and sly, acerbic but forgiving insight, was perhaps the most acutely humanistic of all the great American playwrights.

Williams, who served as associate director for the Tony-nominated Broadway production, elicits nuanced, dimensional performances from every member of this mega-talented ensemble.

Every laugh in this sharp-eyed production hits its mark, not one is wasted, and all are earned honestly.

On scenic designer Jeff Cowie‘s wonderfully authentic set, lit with painterly grace by lighting designer Bill Camp and artfully punctuated by Kathleen Van Horn’s character-defining costumes, Williams fluently modulates the cast dynamics to a splendid symphonic effect, adroitly balancing Foote’s blend of comedy and solemnity.

The writing and the action wane near the end, and the final twist is not all that unexpected, but this is to quibble with a production that is as exquisite as you will see in any of the major regional theaters across the country.

In the cost-conscious crunch of producing theater in America, a large-cast show such as “Estate” may be a disappearing genre.

All the more reason to see this hilariously scathing indictment of rampant avarice and entitlement before such productions reach extinction.


"Dividing the Estate" 

WHEN: Through April 2 and April 13-15

WHERE: Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, 616 St. Peter St., New Orleans

TICKETS: $35-$50

INFO: (504) 522-2081 or www.lepetittheatre.com

Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.