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Theater Review: "Way Downriver"

Richard Baird and Benjamin Cole in "Way Downriver."
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“Way Downriver,” Edward Morgan’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s novella “Old Man,” is not set in Faulkner’s usual fictional stomping grounds of Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., but mostly on the mighty Mississippi River, which in 1927 flooded 170 counties in seven states. That event still holds the record as the most destructive flood in U.S. history.

The West Coast premiere of “Way Downriver” touches on issues of race, political hypocrisy, the American justice system, right and wrong and even romance in a stunning, must-see production playing through May 8 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

The play opens at Parchman State Penal Farm, to which inmate Aikins (Richard Baird) returns after being missing for nine weeks. Aikins and cellmate Tommy (Benjamin Cole), drafted for rowboat rescue duty in the flood, were sent to save a pregnant woman and a man stranded separately downriver. The cellmates were separated by the flood; Tommy ended up in a tree and was found and returned to Parchman. Aikin has, in the intervening nine weeks, been declared drowned – but here he is, back in jail.

What happened in those nine weeks is the subject of this play. Aikins tells the story in flashback while Tommy and new cellmate Ike (Robert Grossman) listen and comment.

The center of Marty Burnett’s tripartite set offers an evocative rendering of the sandbagged riverbank and (thanks to Aaron Rumley’s projections, sound by Melanie Chen and Matt Novotny’s lighting) a terrifying suggestion of the flood.

This “flood set” is flanked by the warden’s spare office and the prisoners’ nearly barren cell. 

Aikins manages to find Ellie (Sara Fetgatter) on her rooftop, extremely great with child and hoping to get to dry land in time. Together, this mismatched pair battle the elements outside and fears (and perhaps demons) within as they search for help, salvation or at least dry ground.

Morgan’s added dramatic touches in dialogue and a possible romance draw us in, and universally superb acting by this splendid cast captivates and makes us care about how this will end.

Storyteller Baird does the lion’s share of the work; this always fine actor outdoes himself as the conflicted Aikins, a convict with seven years served of a 15-year sentence for attempted murder who now sees another possibility.

New York-based Fetgatter is a welcome presence and a fine actress. Not showy or loud, her Ellie eschews histrionics for the quiet desperation and stoic attitude that show on her expressive face.

Grossman is also a welcome addition, not only as the delightfully sardonic Ike, but also for his guitar stylings and the lonely, bluesy music he wrote for this show.

Cole’s Tommy provides a talkative, younger counterpart to Baird’s more introspective Aikins.

The playwright also gives us an assortment of other colorful characters, played by John Herzog, Max Macke and Geno Carr. The most amusing is Carr’s Cajun, who has a comical dual-language “conversation” with Aikins and Ellie, neither of whom speak Cajun.

“Way Downriver” takes you on a fascinating journey in more ways than the flood provides. You’ll come away considering the meaning of duty, justice, even love. This production is not to be missed.

The Details

Way Downriver” plays through May 8, 2016 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

UPDATE: This show has been extended to May, 15. 

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm. 

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org