There are good reasons why N.C. State University Theatre’s “Walking Across Egypt” has sold out all performances before opening night: noted theater veteran Patricia C. Caple plays the lead and the production is based on the popular novel by North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton.
Edgerton’s warm, gentle look at rural Southern life focuses on 78-year-old widow Mattie Rigsbee. She lives alone, causing her son Robert and neighbors Alora and Finner to worry about her health and safety. Into her life comes 16-year-old Wesley, a relative of local dog catcher Lamar, whom Mattie has called about a stray dog. Wesley, currently in a juvenile correctional center, soon becomes Mattie’s rehabilitation project, mostly accomplished through her delicious cooking.
Catherine Bush’s adaptation keeps these central characters and events but makes major changes in Mattie’s son and neighbors and invents a new character, the flashy Reverend Bass. These changes, along with repetitive jokes about Mattie’s cornbread and old rocking chair, tilt towards farcical humor. Hilarious situations and knee-slapper punch lines abound, but much of the novel’s subtle, humane character is lost. Bush adds a church choir singing hymns between major scenes, slowing the action and pushing the play well past two hours, plus intermission.
Director Rachel Klem’s cast provides likeable characters and some new insights within her broad approach. Jade Arnold is consistently amusing as the smooth-talking Reverend Bass, while John Rogers Harris Sr., gets laughs as exasperated, pouty Robert. Barbette Hunter’s nosy Alora and Demond McKenzie’s gun-toting Finner, although often over the top, bring welcome slapstick energy.
Ronald A. Foreman makes Lamar a bumbling bundle of nerves, and Vincent Bland Jr., gives Wesley a sassy brashness hiding underlying goodness.
The production is a fine tribute to Caple’s more-than-five-decade theater career as actress, director and teacher at Shaw University and N.C. State. She still has a great sense of comic timing, eliciting guffaws with Mattie’s pungent observations. At Thursday’s opening, she struggled with pacing her lines and had to move slowly over the various levels of Jayme Mellema’s attractive set. But any hesitancy was easily overlooked to have Caple back on stage again.