It would be easy to assume that Hallie Foote, who plays Mary Jo in Dividing the Estate, had an almost unfair advantage over the other actors in this or any other play by Horton Foote. He is, after all, her father, and she has spent quite a bit of time, especially in recent years, in Wharton, Texas, his hometown and the inspiration for much of his work.
But Hallie doesn't necessarily agree that these qualifications give her a leg up. Sitting in the rear of the Booth's orchestra section this week, just before a matinee, she said: "I don't have an exact footnote to every line in my father's plays. When I'm performing them I only occasionally will be struck by something from real life. In Dividing the Estate, for example, there's a line about how America is becoming a service economy. Hearing that the other night, the line really hit me. I can't even tell you why, exactly."
Hallie, who grew up in Nyack, New York, until she was 16, at which time her family moved to New Hampshire, points out the fallacy in assuming that every remark in her father's plays was taken from something somebody said in his life. "They are compilations of impressions that Dad has about people he has known in his life. They are not verbatim, usually."
Hallie grew up hearing about people in Wharton, but she has tended to spend extended time there only in more recent years, since her mother, Lillian, died. Hallie said:"We were there last year, from Thanksgiving, when the run of Dividing the Estate ended at Primary Stages, until New Year's, when we had to start thinking about the production of The Trip to Bountiful, that was done earlier in 2008 at the Goodman, in Chicago." (For her performance in that staging, Hallie made her own trip to bountiful: she was just singled out at the Joseph Jefferson awards, Chicago's highest theatrical honors.)
Although Hallie doesn't think of herself solely as a specialist in her father's work, she has nonetheless been highly praised in his plays and is grateful for her chance to be in them. "They've kept me working all these years," she said. She didn't start young in the business, however; her early training was as a pianist. "My father didn't encourage my siblings and me to hit the stage as kids. He thought the business was hard for children. I think he's right about that. I'm glad I waited."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com