By Tom Titus

    It’s hard to imagine a more depressing setting for a play than a “retirement” home in Idaho that is about to be closed down and where its inhabitants are just marking time in their waning lives while waiting for the blizzard to diminish.
    Yet the playwright, Samuel D. Hunter, and his director, Martin Benson — who teamed on the riveting, offbeat drama “The Whale” last season — have combined to spin this apparent dramatic straw into theatrical gold with “Rest,” now taking the stage in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.
    Born and raised in Idaho, Hunter returns to his roots for most of his dramatic inspiration, focusing on quirky yet otherwise very ordinary characters in even more unexciting situations and makes them come indelibly alive, much like Horton Foote did with his Southern creations and William Inge accomplished with America’s heartland.
    In “Rest,” the focus is on a convalescent home, its employees and its three patients, one of whom who turns up missing midway through the first act. After intermission, the mystery is solved and an even more crucial development arises. To elaborate would require a spoiler alert.
    The centerpiece of this captivating but off-center situation is Etta, an elderly resident and the wife of the missing oldster. Lynn Milgrim dominates this scenario, as she did at SCR in years past in “The Heiress,” “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Death of a Salesman” and others. Her richly layered performance is the top banana in a most impressive bunch.
    The two junior caretakers of the establishment are nicely delineated by Libby West and Sue Cremin. West is strong as the slightly superior member of the pair, while Cremin excels as her junior partner, who is carrying West’s child as a surrogate in a plot element that seems merely tacked on to the primary story. More should be developed with this subplot or it should be simply discarded, and the same goes for an offhand piece of gossip about West’s husband.
    As the painfully inept manager of the rest home, Rob Nagle skillfully underscores his character’s inefficiency as he attempts to assert his flagging authority and unveils his more feminine side. Wyatt Fenner as the new, temporary cook — and a scarily religious fanatic — has some over-the-top moments threatening to upset the play’s delicate balance.
    It’s always good to see SCR founding actors Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. back on stage and at the top of their game even after a half-century of performances. Doyle has a brief but compelling sequence as the old fellow who goes missing, while Landon solidly enacts the taciturn patient, a retired night watchman, upon whose character the plot takes a significant turn.
    The seediness of the overly used retirement home is well illustrated in its well-worn set design by John Iacovelli. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are fitting for such a back-country atmosphere.
    With “Rest,” playwright Hunter further establishes himself as a theatrical voice of paramount importance. His offbeat collection of characters has found a welcome home at South Coast Repertory.

(this review originally was published in the Daily Pilot)


Dividing the Estate

Family Divided in Newport’s “Estate”

By Tom Titus

    Horton Foote wrote over 100 plays during his nearly 93 years of creativity, many of which have been produced by local theaters. One that’s been absent from our stages, however, is “Dividing the Estate,” a family-themed dramatic comedy from the late 1980s which only now has surfaced at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

    This play, like much of Foote’s Southern-fried creations, is an acquired taste, but playgoers probably will acquire it before the lights dim on its first act. After that point, it’s just fun to watch the several members of a Texas family battle greedily for the upper hand in a quest for proceeds and property.

    Initially, the Gordons are a fairly convivial clan, sharing a large Texas estate presided over by the aging matriarch Stella (Nancy Larner) and also housing her grown children, Lucille (Sharyn Case), Lewis (Sean Singer) and her grandson, known only as “Son” (Sean Sellers), as well as assorted servants.

    In time another heiress arrives, daughter Mary Jo (Della Lisi), along with her ineffectual husband Bob (Larry Greagan) and their attractive teen daughters (Whitney Ellis and Natalie Swinford), who frequently are mistaken for one another. Add to this mix Son’s schoolteacher fiancee Pauline (Chiara Issa) and an ancient family retainer Doug (J.L.T. Williams), a cook (Gwen Woolddridge) and her helper Cathleen (Aili Jiaravanant) and you’ve got quite a contentious household.

    Director Brian Page stirs this concoction effectively, pressing the comedic buttons when required to elaborate on the quirkiness of one character of another. As two of them pass away unexpectedly, the others converge to sniff out their advantage should the estate be divided.

    It’s a splendid ensemble, but one performer emerges memorably – Lisi’s avaricious desperation as the sister, transplanted to Houston, who looks down on the others as her own financial position is diminishing. Her “What about me?” attitude and her impatient finger drumming as other issues are discussed amplify this excellent performance.

    In contrast, Case presents a solid, if more undramatic, character who’s adapted to her life on the estate, joining Sellers – who has three years of college behind him – in managing the family finances. Sellers, a calm young widower, seems the most “normal” character of the bunch and a sense of calm amid the familial storm.

    He’s contrasted by his uncle Lewis, a role beautifully executed by Singer as a heavy drinking schemer seeking money from the estate to, as he puts it, save his life (by placating the angry father of his young ladyfriend). Issa brightens the picture as Son’s fiancee, a sparkling presence in the midst of continual turmoil.

    Larner also impresses as the iron-willed grandmother sternly opposing the property sale. Greagan is less effective as Lisi’s real estate agent husband who argues for it, while Williams (a white actor playing a servant’s role originally written for an African-American) displays moments of depth and clarity amid his character’s normal befuddlement.

    Ellis and Swinford shine as Lisi’s self-centered daughters, also dividing the spoils in their minds. Jaspre Dixon, who arrives late in the play as Singer’s squeeze, offers a dimly lit defining moment, while Wooldridge and Jiaravanant function believably as the kitchen staff.

    Andrew Otero’s old-house setting, with curtains blending into the wallpaper, is admirable, as are the costume creations of Claudia Berglund and Joni Stockinger. Likewise, Mitch Atkins’ lighting and Page’s sound design blend well in the proceedings.

    Horton Foote was a past master of mining artistic gold from the conflicts of families, particularly Southern ones. The mixture spotlighted in “Dividing the Estate” combines drama and comedy to high effect at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.


WHAT: “Dividing the Estate”
WHERE: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach
WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. until April 27
COST: $12
CALL: (949) 631-0288

(this review originally appeared in the Daily Pilot)

                    – tt –