Willard Akins may seem to be luckless and uncomplicated: 25 years old and already a confirmed stoic, manfully doing a stretch at a penal farm in Mississippi because his boyhood fascination with a book about a train robbery precipitated the real thing, in which two men died. But in Edward Morgan’s stirring and literate Way Downriver, adapted from William Faulkner’s short story “Old Man,” Akins is much more complex. As beautifully played by Richard Baird, Akins is a fearless survivor resigned to the sometime violent whims of nature and of fate. He is also imbued with a deeply rooted decency and even a philosophical curiosity.
David Ellenstein directs the West Coast premiere of this extraordinary play, which finds Akins one of two convicts in 1927 set out onto the overflowing Mississippi to rescue a pair of imperiled souls. One of them, a wary and very pregnant young woman named Ellie (Sara Fetgatter), becomes Akins’ companion (and more) in the ensuing adventure of the flood and of the heart. In a parallel narrative, Akins (who had been presumed drowned) is telling his fantastic story after the fact to fellow cons Tommy (an aptly hyper Benjamin Cole) and old Ike (Robert Grossman, whose bluesy guitar playing of music he composed himself provides a moody backdrop to the narrative accounts past and present).
These two recurring scenarios—Akins’ and Ellie’s journey on the Mississippi, and the convicts’ often-comical interplay—give Way Downriver its texture and context. Morgan’s play, as with Faulkner’s story, confronts formidable realities: Nature does not give up its secrets, and man’s behavior is not always reflective of his supposed humanity.
Way Downriver could have been ponderous and biblically symbolic, in the way that so many scholars view Faulkner’s original story. But the tenderness and humor of playwright Morgan’s script, brought to vivid and engrossing life by a skilled cast, ensure that rather than being flooded with messages, we are gently guided toward our own unanswerable questions. Akins would have liked it that way—that we accept the unreachability of answers, and just live on.
Way Downriver runs through May 8 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $43- $50. northcoastrep.org
Passage Into Fear: Set on a passenger train in the waning days of World War I, this play tells the story of an elderly woman who disappears after reveling she knows details of an international conspiracy. Presented by the North County Players, it opens April 21 at the Patio Playhouse Theatre in Escondido. northcountyplayers.org
Rapture, Blister, Burn: When successful Catherine returns home to take care of her ailing mother, she finds herself clashing with her childhood friend whose life took a more domestic path. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it opens April 21 at the Lyceum Space in the Gaslamp. sdrep.org
The BFG (Big Friendly Giant): Roald Dahl’s classic tale of an English orphan girl who meets up with a, well, you can probably guess. Adapted for the stage by David Wood, it opens April 22 at the SDSU Don Powell Theatre in the College Area. ttf.sdsu.edu
Dinner with Marlene: This world premiere dramedy centers on an actual dinner party that took place in 1938 Paris with movie star Marlene Dietrich and her famous friends. Written by local playwright Anne-Charlotte Harvey, it opens April 22 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
Red Dog Howls: A staged reading of Alexander Dinelaris’ drama about a man attempting to find out the truth about his family’s survival of the Armenian genocide. Presented by Intrepid Theatre Company, it happens April 25 at the Encinitas Library. intrepidtheatre.org
Ted Williams: A Tip of the Cap: Matt Thompson stars in this one man show about the local baseball legend, which chronicles his days on the Pacific Coast League Padres to his legendary run with the Boston Red Sox. It happens April 25 at the Point Loma Playhouse. pointlomaplayhouse.com
I’m Good: Incarcerated Men Getting Over Obstacles Daily: A staged reading of a new play written by inmates who have participated in the “Out of the Yard” rehabilitation program at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. Performed by the SDSU School of Theater, Television and Film, it runs through April 23 at the SDSU Experimental Theater in the College Area. playwrightsproject.org
The Elephant Man: The acclaimed drama about a severely deformed British man who goes from sideshow freak to attempting to become accepted among the London aristocracy. Presented by the Oceanside Theatre Company and the Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, it runs through April 24 at the Brooks Theatre in Oceanside. oceansidetheatre.org
Rain: This new musical based on a short story by Somerset Maugham centers on a missionary, a doctor and their wives who meet a loveable prostitute in ’20s Western Samoa. Directed by Barry Edelstein, it runs through May 1 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
The Rocky Horror Show: You’ve seen the movie, now see the show about a couple who unwillingly stumbles upon the castle of a “sweet transvestite” and a sordid cast of characters. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through May 1 at the Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
Skin Deep: A witty, overweight woman goes on a blind date with a fella who doesn’t think before he speaks. Hilarity ensues, natch. Written by Jon Lonoff, it runs through May 1 at the Scripps Ranch Theatre. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Constellations: Nick Payne’s acclaimed play about a chance encounter between a man and a woman at a party and all the varying directions events can play out from there. Directed by Richard Seer, it runs through May 8 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
A Little Night Music: The Stephen Sondheim musical centers on an enchanting actress who invites her male admirers, as well as their jealous wives, for a weekend in the country. It runs through May 8 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Way Downriver: Two very different men must work together to survive a terrible flood along the Mississippi River. Adapted by Edward Morgan from William Faulkner’s short story, Old Man, it runs through May 8 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
Jesus Hates Me: The San Diego premiere of Wayne Lemon’s dramedy about a down-on-his-luck ex football player who begins to question his existence after visiting a Christian-themed miniature golf course. Presented by ion Theatre, it runs through May 14 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Big River: Roger Miller’s Tony Award-winning adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It runs through May 15 at the New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org