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CORN BREAD AND SMILES: ‘Walking Across Egypt’ is homegrown greatness

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Gwenyfar reviews ‘Walking Across Egypt.’

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Last year TheatreNOW presented the stage adaptation of Clyde Edgerton’s novel “Raney.” This year they are offering Catherine Bush’s adaptation of another of Edgerton’s novels, “Walking Across Egypt.”

Front Row: Jef Pollack, Lynette O’Callaghan, Tim Rizor and Skip Maloney. Back Row: Kegan Dubar, Kitty Fitzgibbon, KenWin Halls and Ron Hasson

Theatre-goers meet Mattie Rigsbee (Kitty Fitzgibbon), taker in of stray dogs, thwarted potential grandmother and possessor of the best corn bread recipe in the South. Mattie has decided she is “slowing down” and has her neighbors worried: She actually called the dog catcher to come pick up her latest stray. If she hadn’t called Lamar Benfield (KenWin Halls), she wouldn’t have gotten her rocking chair repaired and found herself visiting Lamar’s nephew, Wesley (Kegan Dubar) in the juvenile detention—which, as far as her son Robert (Ron Hasson) and her neighbors Alora (Lynette O’Callaghan) and Finner (Jef Pollock), are concerned that would probably be for the best. They are very unnerved by this turn of events.

Finner—a Hostess Twinkie delivery driver concerned with defending his neighborhood (to a degree that includes crawling on his belly through tall grass with his night-vision binoculars and pistol)—is convinced he needs to rescue Mattie from a hostage situation. Pollock is having almost as much fun onstage attempting to secure the perimeter as the audience is watching his antics. Never shy about physical comedy, Pollock combines his joie de vivre with a sincere love for and need to protect the women in his life.

O’Callaghan is his perfect match in so many ways. She seems flighty and a bit of a busybody. But, like Finner, she genuinely loves Mattie and cares about her. When she delivers the bombshell of analysis for what is driving Finner’s behavior, it isn’t done with gravitas or great import. It is dropped into conversation with the same bubbly, loquacious speed as everything else receives. Perhaps the least understood character is not actually Wesley or Mattie—but Robert.

Mattie can’t bring herself to understand why Robert is 53-years-old and still single (in spite of all her hopes for grandchildren). Poor Robert is watching himself get slowly displaced in his mother’s life and home: Wesley slept in Robert’s bed and has been given Robert’s old shirt and tie to wear to church (one of Mattie’s conditions for Wesley spending the night under her roof). I could almost feel Hasson’s panic leaping out of his chest as the full understanding of what is happening dawns on him.

Lamar, who has lived a life of broken dreams and accepted the reality of what the world is, still finds kindness and sympathy for people around him—even people who are more prosperous and lucky than he. Halls gives us the younger, male version of Mattie: trying to bring a little goodness and light into the world. But the chips are stacked against him and audiences can see it on his face: dismay, despair, concern, worry. Yet, he gets up and tries to do what he can for those around him. Somehow, in the midst of everything, he is saddled with an angry, ungovernable, destructive teenager—just what every struggling young adult needs in their life, right?

Dubar surprised me; I expected him to be much more manipulative. But his emotions were pretty straightforward: anger at Lamar, desirous of all he saw in Mattie’s life. Wesley clearly cannot plan beyond five minutes in front of him and Dubar doesn’t undermine that with a larger plan brewing in his head. He is purely reactive and, like many teenagers, explosive. Mattie must be a saint; I couldn’t put up with him for 10 minutes.

Opera House Theater Co. produced a stage version of “Walking Across Egypt” n the late 1980s. A film was released in 1999 with Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Mark Hamill. Clearly, there is something within the story that resonates with people. Something emanates from it for it to be revisited, as to remind us to somehow settle into ourselves. Partly, of course, there is Edgerton’s wonderful sense of humor, which doesn’t laugh at the South so much as laugh with his characters inhabiting it. In addition, Edgerton likes to show us people who—though they are flawed and sometimes tripped up by unforeseen and unpredictable parts of life—are still essentially good people,  trying to make the world better.

I think the crux of its draw can best be summed up during a moment of complete naturalness and conviction as shown from Fitzgibbon. Toward the end of the show Mattie is arguing with her minister, trying to get him not to press charges against Wesley for theft. As her plans for Wesley begin to dawn on him, the minister declares that Mattie doesn’t even know if this boy is a Christian—to which she responds it doesn’t mean she can’t be one. She doesn’t scream it, and she doesn’t slam her fist on the table. It’s just the most obvious statement of how she goes through the world.

Fitzgibbon is simply wonderful in this role.  Everyone onstage is fun to watch. Skip Maloney’s sheriff, who has the strangest house call ever to make, and Tim Rizor’s minister, grappling with a colorful but well-intentioned flock, are equally endearing. Fitzgibbon’s Mattie is just what I came looking for: She’s my grandma in every respect. I swear if I walked into Mattie’s house right now she would offer me a piece of corn bread, and in every bite, I would taste the genuine love she pours into the world.

Speaking of food, Chef Denise Gordon clearly had a lot of fun with the menu for this show. Mattie is saving the world one slice of corn bread at a time. Of course, it figures into the menu, starting with corn bread crostini and Carolina caviar: a savory chilled veggie and black-eyed pea salad. For the main course, a sumptuous spaghetti squash layered with creamy cheese and tomato sauce—and of course a piece of corn bread on the side—hit all my tastebuds in the right manner. Dessert showcases another Southern staple: peanuts. Peanut butter cookies accompany a caramel peanut butter and chocolate mousse (for which I am still craving one more bite from …  sigh).

I was pretty ill of both body and spirit last week, but between a hefty dose of prednisone and this show, I was back on my feet filled with nourishment and revitalized for life. There is so much love in the book, script and performances to remind me about the basic goodness and love in the world. Sometimes it comes in a simple package, like a slice of homemade corn bread and a smile.

Walking Across Egypt
Fri. and Sat., April 8-30, 7 p.m.
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.
Tickets: $17-$37

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