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The second of NCSU’s 2014 TheatreFest offerings this summer is Walking Across Egypt, adapted from the novel by local author Clyde Edgerton. The script is adapted by Catherine Bush. The tale is that of Mattie Rigsbee, the 78-year-old matriarch of the Rigsbee family of Listre, North Carolina. Mattie (Patricia C. Caple) has been feeling low of late because her 53-year-old son has yet to marry, and Mattie longs for grandchildren.
Mattie’s son, Robert (John Rogers Harris, Sr.), collects antique lamps and sings in the local church choir. The choir figures prominently in the play, since the show is full of gospel music, including the song that names the book, and the play. The eight-voice choir delivers these songs with élan, adding a dimension of music and style to this play.
Another member of the choir is Alora Swanson (Barbette Hunter), Mattie’s next door neighbor. Alora often checks on Mattie to be sure she is all right. Mattie has accused Alora more than once of meddling, which is absolutely true. Alora loves to meddle. She and her husband, Finner (Demond McKenzie), spend a lot of their time using Finner’s spyglasses, to “monitor” what goes on at Mattie’s house.
Today Mattie has called the local dogcatcher to pick up a stray that has settled on her lawn. Usually Mattie takes in strays, but because Mattie feels she is “slowing down,” she has refused to accept this one. The dogcatcher, Lamar Benfield (Ronald A. Foreman), arrives at her house in time to rescue Mattie from the trap she is in. She has fallen through the seat of her favorite rocking chair, and Lamar comes to her rescue. It is necessary that he cut her out of it, and he volunteers to repair it for her in his shop.
Lamar has a nephew, Wesley (Vincent Bland, Jr.), who is in the YMRC (Young Men’s Rehabilitation Center). Wesley was convicted of stealing a car. Upon hearing of Wesley’s plight, Mattie visits him. He is a sharp and foul-mouthed youth who is rude to Mattie, but she makes him apologize. It is clear from the first visit that Mattie and Wesley will end the play under the same roof.
The play is a comedy, as are all of TheatreFest’s fare, but this one is a little tamer than the rollicking farces that sometimes populate the season. We see and learn of Mattie’s determination, even though she is discouraged from her desires by Robert, Alora, and even Reverend Bass (Jade Arnold). Mattie and Wesley are gong to save each other.
The play was funny, and these veteran actors gave fine comedic performances, but the pace of the show was terribly, almost painfully, slow. There were pauses in the dialogue that traffic could have passed through, and it tended to cause the comedy to flag.
There is one fly in the ointment in the cast as well. Wesley Benfield is a punk, a foul-mouthed street kid who is a car thief. At 16, he smokes, is incarcerated, and has no sense of duty, either to Lamar or Mattie. We did not see this in Bland. The youth seemed miscast; he could not make Wesley the low-life that he is clearly written to be. If Wesley were more believable, then the connection that comes to exist between Mattie and Wesley would have been dearer to the audience, and this play would have fared the better for it.
Director Rachel Klem has assembled the all-Black cast of Walking Across Egypt with care; it seems incongruous that Wesley could have slipped by her. But the lack of believability in Wesley and the amazingly slow pace of the show kept it from being the sparkling comedy it could be. If I could give the cast one note, it would be to pick up the pace, especially in the first act. This would go a long way in making Walking Across Egypt a hit.
Walking Across Egypt continues through Sunday, June 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.