Review of Walking Across Egypt at HART

Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt has been charming audiences — in its original novel form, as a star-studded TV movie, and as more than one stage adaptation — for 22 years, and why not? Set in our part of the world (including a reference to Leicester), it’s the sweet-tempered tale of a feisty 78-year-old widow and a luckless 16-year-old male, both in need of more attention and care than their established families provide.

These two are characters. Mattie’s an unstoppable force of nature (though she’s “slowing down,” as she tells us repeatedly), a font of wisdom and of food which emerges almost magically from her kitchen. And Wesley, perhaps wrongfully sent to a corrections facility, isn’t about to let a little incarceration interfere with his plans. They’re surrounded by characters of the Southern variety: gun-toting, nosy neighbors; a dogcatcher who can’t help taking on other chores, especially if they’ll result in more of Mattie’s home cooking; a congeries of churchgoers and officials, whose approach to Mattie isn’t the only thing that’s off-key; Mattie’s feckless, unmarried offspring; and a sheriff and deputy who make Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, of Mayberry fame, seem models of constabulary efficiency.

Walking, which creates lots of contretemps and confusions for our heroine and hero, and then resolves them nicely, amounts to a homespun slice of Southern life. A whole town is created, and you can almost believe it. It’s a pleasure, for once, to hear the authentic accents of Western North Carolina.

One of the advantages, and joys, of community theatre is the ability to utilize a large ensemble, as commercial theatre rarely can these days. With seventeen cast members, this production takes full advantage of that advantage. All of the actors make the most of the opportunities offered by the script, and though, naturally, their performances tend to lack the polish and poise of experienced thespians, they always get their laughs. One could wish that the hunt for laughs hadn’t always been pursued quite so aggressively, for there’s a thin line between character and caricature, and sometimes stereotypical behavior and attitudes predominate.

This is never the case in Allison Stinson’s star turn as Mattie. Hers is one of the most understated, natural and winning appearances imaginable, and whether she’s collapsing into (and through) a seat-less chair, talking to her dead husband while clutching his photo to her breast, accompanying herself on the piano while singing snippets of hymns, or dishing out unimaginable quantities of foodstuffs, she elicits great sympathy and admiration. Sean Bruce, as Wesley, is a good match for her. Even at his most devilish, he carries with him a clueless sincerity that makes sense of Mattie’s interest in and attraction to him.

First-time HART main-stage director Frances Davis has done well deploying her players and production team. Unfortunately, they’re all betrayed by a meandering script that relies far too heavily on direct speech to the audience, and a never-ending stream of phone calls, to carry much of the story. True dramatic moments are few and far between; some of the action — particularly during a church sequence — is muddled; and the show never develops any real tension or rhythm.

Though the design team has done the usual HART good job, creating a home for Mattie that’s not only lived in but much cooked in, the boxy set is simply too big. A wide variety of ancillary scenes — set in the corrections facility and other homes — can only be reached awkwardly, and creates ongoing lighting problems.
The packed house at Sunday’s matinee of Walking Across Egypt was most appreciative. It’s fair to say attendees enjoyed a good story performed well. If only the show hadn’t been burdened by a lazy script and a difficult-to-negotiate setting.

Walking Across Egypt, by Reid Leonard. Show runs Thursday, Sept. 3 through Sunday, Sept. 6. Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. The Performing Arts Center Theatre in Waynesville. Tickets are $18 adults, $16 seniors and $8 students. 456-6322. More info at HART’s Web site.

Adapted from the novel by Clyde Edgerton. Directed by Frances Davis. Lighting and set design: Steve Lloyd and Tom Dewees. Sound Design: Julie Kinter. Stage Manager: Nan Williamson. With Allison Stinson (Mattie), John Winfield (Lamar), Jennifer Sanner (Alora), Roger Magendie (Finner), Sean Bruce (Wesley), Stan Smith (Mr. Crosley/Clarence), Susan Rudniak (Pearl), Rhonda Parker (Elaine), Tim Beck (Robert), Buffy Queen (Beatrice), Tom Dewees (Dodson), Tracy D. Hyorth (Sheriff), Thomas Butler (Deputy), Lisa Gerber (Laurie), Holly Ann Harmon (Patricia), Jacky Webb (Winston), and Mikell Clark-Webb (Church Member).

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