Walking Across Egypt, by John Justice, is an adaptation of a novel by North Carolina's native son Clyde Edgerton. It is the story of what happens when Mattie Riggsbee, an elderly woman with no future, meets Wesley Benfield, an orphaned teenager with no past, and the changes this effects in both their lives.
At 78, Mattie is becoming forgetful and confused, doing things like cleaning the toilet seat with Listerine instead of alcohol and dousing her potato salad with hot chili pepper instead of paprika. She longs to be a grandmother, for that is where the future lies, but her children—the officious career-woman Elaine and the ineffectual Robert—show no signs of marrying, let alone of producing children. Mattie knows that without children the past will disappear because there will be no one to pass along the stories of Mama and Grandma and all the others who have come before. And if that happens, the family will cease to exist, for the dead are only truly dead when "there is no one to remember them."
Into her life comes Wesley. He has walked away from a juvenile detention center. Dirty and hungry, he breaks into her house to find a place to stay for the night. Wesley is a lost soul, adrift in life—unwanted by his parents, who placed him in an orphanage, and with no family to fall back on or take care of him—he faces the world with a tough-guy bravado. As he talks with Mattie we, and she, see his underlying need to be loved and to be part of a family. He keeps calling Mattie "Grandma" and when she retorts, "I'm not your grandma" he replies that she could be. Reluctantly at first, Mattie agrees to let him stay the night. By the next day, she treats him like a member of the family, to the chagrin of her children.
As Mattie takes Wesley increasing under her wing her children plot to get rid of him. Their plan works, but their duplicitousness is revealed and Mattie turns to God to tell her what is the right thing to do.
The play is described as "heartwarming," which, with its implication of sentimentality, I usually find a turn-off. But the grittiness of the writing and the earthiness of the characters prevent this. Mattie is a feisty, independent old woman who quotes the Bible, knows right from wrong, is nobody's fool, and sees goodness where others see dross.
In the physically demanding role of Mattie, Sally Cheney is the embodiment of these qualities, seasoning them with a fine comic sensibility. As Wesley, William Hartzog is the perfect match for her. Alternating the boorishly brash behavior of the character with a vulnerability that reveals the lost young man underneath, it is easy to understand his appeal to Mattie. They are an ideal odd couple and the two actors seem made for the parts and for each other.
Elaine Elwood and Robert McCracken turn in sterling performances as the children, as does Norma Holt-Rugile as Mattie's sister Pearl. As the next-door neighbor, the talented Carla Pridgen is hilarious as the gun-toting Alora, ably supported by Bill Brittain as her equally armed husband.
The set, designed by director Bernie Hauserman, truly enhances the play. Completely open, with no walls or windows, only different levels indicate the different rooms of Mattie's house. Beyond the house, and the background to the play, are the blue-hued mountains of Western North Carolina, as solid, strong, and enduring as the people who live there.
The only weaknesses of the evening were some muffed lines and cues, which slowed the director's excellent pacing, and problems within the play itself. Although the dialog was well-done, the plot could use tightening. Robert and Elaine confess too readily to having gotten rid of Wesley. There is no lead-in to that moment, no dramatic tension. And the end happens too quickly. Secrets are revealed, Mattie prays for a sign about what to do, and the play is over. Again, there is no tension built into that moment. There should be a moment of doubt about what Mattie will do. Instead, we know the outcome before she does.
But these are minor points and shouldn't deter you from having an entertaining and enjoyable evening (or matinee) at Walking Across Egypt as performed by an engaging cast.