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Directing the Estate

Michael Wilson handles with care the work of his late friend Horton Foote.
By Donalevan Maines • Photo by Joan Marcus


Michael Wilson

This is a big month for Broadway’s Michael Wilson. June could be jumpin’ all over, July hot as hell, and August—why, August will be positively epic.

Wilson, 44, lived in Montrose when he scored one of his biggest triumphs, directing Angels in America at the Alley Theatre in 1995.

 On May 5, he will find out whether Dividing the Estate is nominated for a Tony Award—it’s the comedy by his late friend Horton Foote that he recently directed in a limited run on Broadway. Wilson says, “I fully expect that Horton will be nominated and that he will finally take home the Tony for his body of work, over 70 years writing for the theater. I think this is among his greatest works and worthy of the honor bestowed on him.”

 This month, Wilson also will return to Texas for Foote’s private burial service in Wharton, the playwright’s hometown that he’s immortalized as the fictional “Harrison, Texas” in many of his plays. Then Wilson jets back to New York for a memorial service at 4 p.m., May 11, at Lincoln Center.

 On May 28, 12 of the 13-member Broadway cast of Dividing the Estate will reprise their roles at Hartford Stage, where Wilson is in his 11th year as artistic director. Its Broadway producers hope that Tony voters will make the two-hour drive to Hartford, Connecticut, to see the show before marking their final ballots (due on June 5), but Wilson says that wasn’t his theater’s primary reason for staging it.

 “We’re doing it because we love the play, and one of our missions is to bring the best of Broadway to Hartford Stage,” he explains.

A scene from Dividing the Estate.

 In June, Wilson could be attending the Tony Awards as director of a favorite for the best-play Tony, possibly a nominee himself for best director, and/or the significant other of a nominee for scenic design. Jeff Cowie, a painter he met in Houston, made his Broadway debut as a set designer with the tastefully decorated “Harrison, Texas” home in Dividing the Estate.

 When 92-year-old Foote died in Hartford on March 4, he had been working for the past year and a half on The Orphans’ Home Cycle, a nine-play epic commissioned by Hartford Stage in 2007. “The bulk of it was complete,” says Wilson, explaining that he and the playwright’s daughter, actress Hallie Foote, “will now finish it,” prior to its run, which will employ more than three dozen artists, at Hartford Stage Aug. 27–Oct. 17 and at Signature Theatre Company in New York City, Oct. 29, 2009–April 11, 2010.

Michael Wilson interviews his old friend and fellow Texan, Horton Foote.

 Wilson, who was then associate director at the Alley, became good friends with Horton Foote when the playwright was honored in festivities attended by actors Robert Duvall and Tess Harper, who appeared together in Foote’s 1983 Oscar-winning original screenplay, Tender Mercies. Duvall, who worked with Foote many times over the years, made his first on-screen appearance in Foote’s 1962 Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

 “We became very close, frequently going to the theater together,” says Wilson. “I have many fond memories of driving down 59 South to Wharton and having dinner with Horton and his wife, Lillian [who produced films in the 1980s from Foote’s plays 1918 and On Valentine’s Day ]. We would talk about plays we had seen, new forms, new styles. Horton was passionately engaged in theater, and his love for it was very infectious.”

 They remained close even after Wilson left in 1993 to direct plays in New York, while remaining a resident artist at the Alley until he took over the artistic reins at Hart ford Stage. Most recently, Wilson directed Jane Alexander and Lynn Cohen in the premiere of Tina Howe’s Chasing Monet off- Broadway, and Matthew Modine in a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which Foote enjoyed seeing 13 days before he died.

 Wilson’s theater in Connecticut is a supportive friend of the GLBT community, for example, benefiting the Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective and hosting fundraisers for Love Makes a Family prior to Connecticut’s legalization of gay marriage. But in his younger days in Montrose, Wilson took to the streets as a gay activist with ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Queer Nation.

Michael Wilson in his Houston days.

 “I felt a vital part of the gay and lesbian community in Houston,” he recalls. “We were so active and passionate. It was a very urgent, heady time. A lot of us were out there demonstrating at the Republican Convention [outside the Astrodome in 1992] and jumping into action after the brutal [hate-crime] murder of Paul Broussard. It was a confluence of events that called for that kind of action.”

 Wilson and Cowie now share a Victorian home just five minutes from Hartford Stage. They host cast parties and entertain visiting artists, among them actress Annalee Jefferies, a favorite of gay theatergoers in Houston (currently in Hartford through May starring in the solo adaptation of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking ). Jefferies is one of so many artists who “discovered” Wilson’s work in his Alley days and would follow him anywhere.

 Another actress who fits that bill is Elizabeth Ashley, who starred as the matriarch Stella Gordon in Dividing the Estate. Her children in the play were portrayed by Hallie Foote (Mary Jo), TV’s “Major Dad” Gerald McRaney (Lewis), and Penny Fuller (Lucille), whose first Tony nomination came for her role as conniving Eve Harrington in Applause, the 1970 musical version of All About Eve. Fuller, like Wilson a native of North Carolina, was nominated again in 2001 for Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party.

 Wilson’s directorial debut on Broadway, Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April, was nominated for best play in 2003, and his star Jayne Atkinson was nominated for best actress. In 2007, Wilson directed the Broadway revival of John van Druten’s Old Acquaintances, which was the basis of the 1943 movie classic starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as longtime friends and rival authors.

 Donalevan Maines also writes about the musical version of Grey Gardens in this issue of OutSmart magazine.


 As widowed family matriarch Stella Gordon, Elizabeth Ashley (left) stakes out her position in the late Horton Foote’s play about a family feud Dividing the Estate, while James DeMarse, Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter), Maggie Lacey, and Devon Abner scheme to split the spoils with their own best interests in mind. Former Alley Theatre associate director Michael Wilson (inset) directed the genteel comedy, which won best new off-Broadway play before bowing on the Great White Way, where it’s expected to be a frontrunner at the Tony Awards in June.

 Texas two-step: Michael Wilson interviews his old friend and fellow Texan, Horton Foote, in a video shot at Hartford Stage in 2007.

 The early days: Michael Wilson, a former Houston resident, brought passion to the stage and to the street, as illustrated by his lapel pin. The pink triangle was ACT-UP’s logo.


Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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