Photo by Jim Hendricks

Photo by Jim Hendricks

ALBANY, Ga. -- Here's a familiar-sounding plot as America recovers from a deep recession.

Caught up in an economic downturn, a once-wealthy family finds its resources dwindling. There's a move by the grown children in the family, who are facing tough times after enjoying privileged childhoods, to pressure their aging parent to go ahead and divvy up the family assets now.

It's a story that could have been ripped from today's headlines.

But it's also a storyline that made headlines a quarter-century ago.

That's when playwright Horton Foote, who had resided for years in places such as New York, New Hampshire and California, moved back to his hometown, a small community near Houston in southeast Texas named Wharton.

Caught in the 1980s recession that impacted the entire nation, Foote -- who has won two Academy Awards for screenplays in his long writing career -- watched what was happening to his town and used those observations as the basis for a play that he debuted in 1989 -- "Dividing the Estate." Foote, who died in 2009 at age 92, used his hometown as the inspiration for fictional Harrison, Texas, the setting for many of his plays. Foote also said that about half the characters he has created have been based on residents of Wharton, which is why three plays that he wrote have not been published out of deference to the residents -- or their children -- who inspired the works.

Theatre Albany will perform "Dividing the Estate," which reached Broadway two years ago, in two long weekend sets: Feb. 3-6 and 10-13.

"The play was written more than 20 years ago," said Mark Costello, theater artistic managing director, who is both directing and performing a role in the play. "It's specific to 1987. It's very interesting how time goes around. All the financial straits that are happening to characters in this play are happening to folks nowadays: foreclosures, losing jobs, wanting to know where the money's going to come from next."

The play revolves around the Gordon family of Harrison, headed by 85-year-old matriarch Stella Gordon (portrayed in Theatre Albany's production by Joy Johnson). Gordon is a third-generation owner of the once-prosperous cotton farm, which is suffering from the recession and the bottomed-out cotton market.

Her alcoholic son Lewis (played by Stephen Syfrett) and daughter Lucille (Kathleen Stroup) live on the homeplace, along with employees Doug (Ken Stutely), who's 92, Mildred (Sandy Hardy Meadows) and Cathleen (Morgan Williams). The farm is run by Lucille's son Son (Morgan Carson).

They're getting ready for a visit from daughter Mary Jo (Jennifer Kirk Bowers), her husband Bob (Costello) and their children Emily (Kate Funk) and Sissie (Janna Henderson). On the menu: the adult children, each facing financial stress and looking for the easiest solution, want to divide up the Gordon Estate.

The problem? Mama will have nothing to do with the idea.

"Lewis wants $10,000 -- he won't say why he needs it," Costello said. "Then Mary Jo comes in, and they talk about needing the estate divided. Then my character, Bob, comes in and says what she ought to do is get a tax lawyer in here and divide up the estate and set up a process by which when she does pass way, the estate tax won't go to the government.

"They're all kind of -- I don't want to say circling, because I don't think they're that avarice -- but they are all in financial straits in one way or another. They see this as the quickest way to solve their financial problems because their mother is old, you know. But she's sticking to the old ways: The land is beautiful, she loves the home, she doesn't want it to be torn up and a mall put there, or however she sees it. She has these great ties to the land."

That complication and the complex interaction of the characters lead to the drama and humor in the play, Costello said.

"They get sidetracked by this, that and the other," he said, noting that early on Stella tries to talk the even more elderly Doug into adding cattle and vegetable operations to the farm.

The play, Costello says, is a realistic portrayal of three-dimensional characters.

Johnson agrees that a realistic portrayal is paramount to the success of the performance.

"She's (Stella's) a very strong-willed character," Johnson said. "The interesting thing I find about his (Foote's) play ... is it's really a lot of nuances. It's not an in-your-face play. If you're over-dramatic with the characters, you lose the characters as far as I'm concerned."

Syfrett agreed.

"Yeah, that's one of the keys to this," he said. "We've got to present it realistically. We're not over-dramatizing. We're not trying to make it humorous overtly. The humor will be there. We've seen that. My first reading of it, I thought it was very, very dry. It was, 'Where is the humor that's supposed to be in this play?' But as we worked through the nuances of the characters and what their history is, the family and how they've interacted with each other, all of that is where, I think, the humor comes from."

Costello said he doesn't characterize the play as a comedy or drama.

"I would say it's human," he said. "There's drama in it, and there's a lot of comedy, too. It's comedy coming from recognition of how people are and how they react around money. So I think people will laugh about that and laugh at recognition. 'Oh yeah, I know that person.'"

The characters are rich in their flesh-and-blood origins.

"All these characters are based on people he (Foote) knew in his life," Costello said. "As a matter of fact, he has a nine-play cycle that's about his father from when he was a young boy when he was orphaned going all the way through adulthood. He did a saga of that. A lot of people refer to him as 'the American Chekhov.' And by that, I don't want to throw people. It means his plays are about simple, honest people and honest situations and things that are going on in his life.

"His characters are recognizable as real people. They're not caricatures. I keep working with the cast and saying, 'Let's find the truth. Let's find the honesty in these characters' so that it doesn't become a play of screaming and yelling. There are sibling rivalries, but it can't be nasty all the time. It's there, but let the audience see that. You don't have to point it out to them."