Michael Wilson, who is directing Dividing the Estate, is in his tenth season as artistic director of Hartford Stage. He has directed Enchanted April andOld Acquaintance on Broadway and dozens of plays -- new and classic -- around the country. He made his LCT debut in 2002 with a production of Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children, in the Mitzi Newhouse.
Brendan Lemon: How important is it for Horton Foote to be coming back to Broadway after so many years?
Michael Wilson: It's a big event. He's a great American playwright, but unlike David Mamet or Tennessee Williams he has not been on Broadway as frequently as he deserves. His work was on Broadway a lot in the 50s, but then not much until The Young Man from Atlanta, in the mid-1990s.
BL: Foote is somewhat unusual in that he has written dozens of plays based on the same place -- his hometown of Wharton, Texas.
MW: Yes, his focus is on place. He was encouraged at any early age to write what he knew -- by Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille and Stark Young, among others.
BL: How do you explain Foote's long absence from Broadway?
MW: I think what happened is that our theater changed radically in the 60s to reflect the chaos of the times. The confusion and chaos of that time was not hospitable to Horton's writing. He was writing of an America that was a snapshot of a time and history and a specific place.
Rather than trying to change his ways, the way Tennessee did, Horton stuck to his guns in terms of what he did best. And it took time for us to come back around -- to have a patient ear for the humanity that he puts onstage. There was so much cacophony in 60s and 70s that you couldn't hear Horton Foote. There is gentle music in his plays but they are no less violent or tragic compared to what was held up as important theater in a tumultuous time.
BL: It sounds as if you're saying that Foote fell out of fashion, even though his work kept being produced around the country.
MW: He did. That doesn't mean that Horton hasn't kept evolving as an artist. He was influenced heavily at first by Chekhov and then by Beckett. His work becomes more modern and spare. For example, The Carpetbagger's Children, which I directed at Lincoln Center Theater, is really a very modern play.
BL: How would you describe your working relationship with Foote?
MW: Rich and interesting. His attention to the script is so nuanced and detailed. He wants every line and word to count. He's ruthless with himself.
I think we're very lucky that Horton didn't get completely discouraged and stop writing for the stage. Especially since he's one of the few writers who's had success in TV, movies, and the stage. Unlike many others who've had that success, his first love has always been the theater.
BL: How would you compare Foote's work with that of Tennessee Williams?
MW: Horton knew Tennessee very well. He went to the opening night of The Glass Menagerie, and he has directed scenes from it in his acting class. You'll have to ask Horton about this, but I think what happened was that as Tennessee got more famous and used drugs and alcohol to deal with fame, he and Horton became more distant. Although Horton did smoke like a fiend in the 1940s. He told me that years ago he could never imagine writing a play without strong coffee and cigarettes!
BL: Another obvious parallel between the two playwrights is that they both write of the American south. Although - perhaps because I'm a Yankee - I think of Texas as Texas, not as the south.
MW: Early in my career, after having met Horton in North Carolina, I was employed by the Alley Theater in Houston. I lived there for almost four years, and during that time Horton and I rekindled our friendship. Despite its Wild West reputation, Houston and the area around it is decidedly Southern.
BL: What was the first play of Foote's that you directed?
MW: I directed the premiere of The Death of Papa down in Chapel Hill in 1997. Matthew Broderick starred. A year later I did the play in Hartford.
I am currently in the process of mounting Horton's Orphan's Home cycle for Hartford Stage a year from now. This will be the first time that all nine of the plays will be staged together. We'll be doing them like a little like the way Lincoln Center Theater did The Coast of Utopia -- three three-hour evenings.
BL: What would you say are the defining characteristics of Foote's plays?
MW: I always feel that when you enter Horton's plays, you can really shut off the world outside. He asks you to come back to a time onstage that has an elasticity to it. He shares that quality with another Texan, Robert Wilson, though in very different ways.
In The Trip to Bountiful, for example, you can feel time being stopped dead at the Harrison bus station. Yet there's also a dramatic urgency that Horton creates.
I also think there is an immense compassion for humanity in Horton's plays. He embraces all of his characters and judges none of them, even though many characters in his plays encounter obstacles of drunkenness, infidelity, and laziness.
BL: What characterizes Dividing the Estate?
MW: Humor. As a director, you have to be careful not to push the humor. If you do, it becomes a simplistic parody of people who are in a difficult situation. If you really get underneath the skin of these people, and recognize where these people are in their lives, then you'll be in better shape.
BL: What's the history of Dividing the Estate?
The play is set in 1987; its premiere was in 1989 at the McCarter, in Princeton, New Jersey. Horton was more involved with the second production, directed by Gerald Freedman at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland. The idea was that this production would be Horton's comeback to Broadway, after forty years. But it didn't happen.
The play basically sat there for awhile. There was talk about producing it, but it really took Primary Stages to stand up courageously and do it last year off-Broadway.
BL: How does Dividing the Estate sit in the current cultural climate?
MW: In a weird way, with the great economic crisis going on, and the millions of homes being foreclosed, this play has really met its urgent moment. I think that audiences are really going to relate to this story at this time.
BL: Do you plan many changes in the LCT production from the one at Primary Stages?
MW: Horton and I have been sharpening the final version of the text, making changes that will be infinitesimal to most eyes. We will have the same great cast we had at the end of the Primary run. Most important, being on Broadway at the Booth will give us an opportunity to fully realize the house where the play's Gordon family has lived for the last 100 years. At Primary, we had incredible intimacy; but now we're finally going to see the house more in terms of comfort and a sense of home. The loss of house and land will be more potently felt by this production. We will be able to see more parts of the house.
BL: Your description makes me think of August: Osage County, another play on Broadway where the house is central.
MW: I think the house is even more central to this play than it is in August. The Dividing house is so symbolic to this family. For some members, it means life or death; others want to get rid of it. The notion of the house's past and how that looms over the family will be much more vivid at the Booth.
BL: Last question: how would you define your taste as a theater director?
MW: Like most directors, I want to show a variety of work. I've done Shakespeare, Chekhov, and O'Neill, as well as new work. Some people have defined my body of work as being dominated by female characters, and this play is no exception. I have collaborated many times with Elizabeth Ashley, who plays the matriarch in Dividing, I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion that I am "a woman's director." But I would say that I am drawn to plays that deal with family situations. In the plays I work on I want there to be a real moment of catharsis. I am always looking to let the audience have some kind of emotional connection. That's one of the reasons why I love Horton's plays so much: they allow that connection.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com