Little Theatre to do Salisbury director’s ‘whole book’ version of Walking Across Egypt

When Reid Leonard decided to adapt Clyde Edgerton’s novel Walking Across Egypt for the stage, he went right to the source – the novel itself.

“The idea was to do the whole book,” Leonard said. “All the characters are there, and all the scenes are there.”

Edgerton, he said, was very laid-back about adapting it for the stage and essentially told him to go for it. “He understood how it changes and how it affects things,” Leonard said.

The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem’s presentation of Leonard’s adaptation will open Friday at the Arts Council Theatre.

The story focuses on the relationship between Mattie Rigsby (played by Kathleen Robertson), a lonely 78-year-old widow, and Wesley (played by Spencer Collins), a teenage orphan and juvenile delinquent who comes into Mattie’s life. An unexpected and warm friendship develops.

“The secret to it is Clyde,” Leonard said. “It’s his voice and his personality.”

As someone who has written several original plays – “most of which probably won’t be revived,” he joked – Leonard was intrigued with adapting another author’s work for the stage. As an admirer of Edgerton’s work – and from a director’s perspective.- “it’s a lot like putting a puzzle together – filling it in and keeping his voice,” he said.

In a further effort to retain Edgerton’s voice, Leonard used such theatrical devices as multiple narrators to deliver passages almost exactly as written in the novel. So, although the story centers on the pivotal characters of Mattie and Wesley, the production has 24 actors, with 17 speaking parts.

Leonard’s stage version of Walking Across Egypt opened in 2001. It was presented by the Piedmont Players Inc., which is in Salisbury and where – not so coincidentally – Leonard is the resident director.

In the late 1990s, the Piedmont Players had great success with a stage production of Raney, adapted from Edgerton’s first novel. Playwright John Justice had also adapted a stage version of Walking Across Egypt, but it had been streamlined to accommodate a smallish company. Leonard wanted to do a full version of the novel.

The inaugural production was an immediate success for the Piedmont Players. “Audiences love it because it’s the whole book and they’re surprised by that,” Leonard said.

Leonard hopes to see the Little Theatre’s production at some point during its run, but right now the Piedmont Players are gearing up for their annual Youth Theatre production (this year it’s The Wonderful Story of Mother Goose), which is often one of the company’s most popular of the season. In addition, the Piedmont Players Theatre will turn 100 years old later this month.

Leonard said he is delighted to see his adaptation of Walking Across Egypt being presented, but he’s not entirely surprised, given Edgerton’s popularity.

Edgerton, born in Durham, was a fighter pilot and a teacher, but did not become a novelist until his 30s. His first novel, Raney, was published in 1985, followed by Walking Across Egypt two years later. Edgerton’s most recent work is Solo, a tribute to flying, which remains one of his passions. His work has been renowned for its humanity and for its distinctive Southern voice.

The show straddles the line between comedy and drama, “and I kind of prefer those plays,” said director Mark Pirolo, also the executive director of the Little Theatre. “This is never really heavy, but there are certain moments that are very heartfelt.

“I was excited to do this,” Pirolo said, “because I was hugely fond of the novel and I liked the film.” (Ellen Burstyn played Mattie and Jonathan Taylor Thomas played Wesley in an independent feature film released in 1999.)

Walking Across Egypt will be Collins’ mainstage debut, but he is a Little Theatre veteran, having participated in the ACT education program and several Youth Theatre productions

“Socially, I used to be a wallflower,” he said. “But ever since I first set foot on stage, I discovered that I was a ham, and I haven’t looked back since!”

Playing Wesley, a rebellious 17-year-old, has been easy for Collins, who is 15. “I get to misbehave. I’d say I was totally type-cast,” he joked.

Tackling his first starring role, “it’s fun and difficult and challenging – which is great,” Collins said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot from the more experienced veterans here, and they’ve been really patient with me.”

Robertson, the leading lady, is an aficionado of Edgerton’s work. She recalls reading – and loving – Walking Across Egypt when it was first published.

“Any time a reader reads fiction, they act the role for themselves,” she said, though she didn’t foresee that she would eventually play the role onstage. “When I read the book, I loved this character.”

What impressed Robertson about the novel – and, indeed, about Edgerton’s overall work – is “that Southern charm,” she said. “The North Carolina language I hadn’t heard in other books. When I read this, I immediately knew these people. I’ve known them all my life.”

Walking Across Egypt will run through Nov. 20 at the Arts Council Theatre. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $18, $16 for senior citizens, $14 for students. Group rates are available; reservations are strongly suggested. There will be a “sneak preview” at 8 p.m. Thursday with all tickets $10. For tickets or more information, see or call 725-4001.

Source: Relish Now!
Author: Mark Burger

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