Walking Across Egypt, onstage now at Neuse Little Theatre under the direction of Tony Pender, is a charming story that got its start as a novel. Later, it was adapted into a film of the same name and this stage play, as adapted by Catherine Bush.
While the story may not have started out as a stage play, that’s certainly not obvious. In fact, the script and its lively characters- especially the main character, elderly Mattie Rigsbee (Kathi Nixon)-feel as though they were written for the stage specifically. In fact, they burst right off of it.
As mentioned, the play centers around Mattie, a woman who lives alone but who, the audience quickly learns, has spent her life taking care of anyone and everything. However, when the audience first meets her, she is in the process of changing this. According to her, she is “slowing down,” and to prove it, she calls a dog catcher, Lamar (Clayton Baker) to come pick up the stray who has taken up residence on her porch.
Little does Mattie know, however, that her one phone call will change the course of her life. She befriends Lamar, which also leads her to befriend his wayward nephew Wesley (Preston Styons). And, this decision puts her at odds with the people in her life, including her nosy neighbors the Swansons (Marge Mueller and Rich Nixon); her unmarried- the script subtly touches on why- son, Robert (Mike Rumble); and even the Reverend of her church (Sammy Smith).
What follows is a late-life coming of age story of sorts. Mattie is a very real character, one who undergoes perhaps not a crisis of faith, but a shift in faith and understanding, and Kathi Nixon portrays her aptly. Knowing just when to lay the comedy on thick and when to hit emotional notes, Nixon brings this complex and well-written character to full and vibrant life.
And, for all of the softer moments in the story, there are plenty of comedic ones too. Kathi Nixon displays a real knack for physical comedy, while Rich Nixon nails the absurdity of his character and, along with Marge Mueller, dishes up some of the funniest moments in the show.
The production’s two young actors also do a solid job with the material. Baker makes his simple character very likeable while Styons shows lots of talent with his character’s more emotional moments.
Fine acting combined with strong direction that makes good use of the somewhat-small space offers the perfect platform for this oft-overlooked script and its beauty to shine through. Full of southern charm and southern themes that make it reminiscent of the ever-lauded Steel Magnolias, it’s a wonder this play isn’t put on more frequently…especially when one sees it done as well as it is here.
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