North Coast Rep's Way Downriver reimagines William Faulkner's short story "Old Man."
  • North Coast Rep's Way Downriver reimagines William Faulkner's short story "Old Man."

Early April, 1927, the Mississippi River overflowed its banks. For the next six weeks, water covered 20,000 square miles of the Delta. It was the worst flood up to that point in U.S. history and so powerful that the surge would spin around and shoot ten-foot crests of whitewater back upriver. Randy Newman sings of the catastrophe in “Louisiana, 1927” (“they’re trying to wash us away”). William Faulkner made it the centerpiece of his novella, “Old Man.”

When the rising river threatens a massive levee, convicts from Parchman Farm — the wall-less state penitentiary 30 miles east of the Mississippi — combat nature’s might. At Parchman, famous for being “worse than slavery,” inmates labored from dawn to dusk, six days a week growing crops for the state. According to Faulkner, though most had “lived within the shadow of the levee,” some “had never even seen the river.”

Two unnamed convicts — one “tall and lean,” the other “short and plump” and “quite white” — are among them. They must row on the roiling waters to find a woman in a cypress snag and a man sitting on a cotton house ridgepole. The short one doesn’t even know how to row. He soon gets caught in a tree.

The tall one read too many dime novels and dreamed of rescuing distressed damsels. Now’s his chance, only the woman on the snag’s the opposite of his hopes. She’s pregnant. Still, he could leave her and escape, but he won’t. Ingrained obligations prevail.

Faulkner didn’t name the characters. “To me,” he told a group of freshman English students, “the story was simply for background effect [to ‘Wild Palms’ a novella that runs concurrently with ‘Old Man’]. They didn’t need names. They just needed to be people in motion doing the exact opposite” of the tragedy of Harry and Charlotte in “Wild Palms.”

The tall convict goes on an odyssey worthy of Homer: he steers past floating houses, wrestles alligators, and dodges machine-gun bullets while trying to surrender. Unlike the majority of humanity, and surely the inmates at the South’s most penal institution, he only wants one thing: to get away from “female life forever and return to that monastic existence of shotguns and shackles where he would be secure from it.”

Way Downriver, at North Coast Rep, and the new musical Rain at the Old Globe have a telling connection. Faulkner’s novella and Somerset Maugham’s short story end with rants: the convict’s final words are “Women ...t!” “Rain” concludes with Sadie Thompson shouting: “You men! You filthy, dirty pigs. You’re all the same, all of you!” Both adaptations hastily retreat from these gender-loathing extremes. The changes make for more politically correct theater, but they mute the “outrage” (Faulkner’s repeated word) in the originals.

Way Downriver almost domesticates “Old Man.” The convict, now named Atkins, nearly falls for the pregnant woman, Ellie, and she has more than eyes for him. As in “Rain,” which over-fills in gaps, Edward Morgan’s adaptation of “Old Man” gives Atkins and Ellie a jazzy sociological parallel. Each is the victim, not of an indifferent universe, but of blind social forces: he of a severe justice system; she of racism. But the parallels substitute explanations for mysteries and water down Faulkner’s epic ironies.

In Faulkner everything happens now. The teller hops from event to event, sometimes in a sentence or two. Onstage, Way Downriver turns the leaps into full scenes. Some — in the prison and the Warden’s office — run long with unnecessary dialogue. They detract from the central thrust of a man and a woman forced to negotiate the swelling “Old Man” river in a dinky skiff.

For North Coast Rep, Marty Burnett’s three-part set — Warden’s office stage left, prison cell stage right, broken levee and sandbags upstage — accommodates the demands of the script but, of necessity, must cramp the bare, downstage space where the river should roar. Matt Novotny’s lights and Melanie Chen’s sounds, and Robert Grossman’s blues guitar contribute to a sense of deluge, but the menace feels too contained.

Richard Baird can add Atkins to his list of impressive theatrical achievements. Baird and Sara Fetgatter’s excellently underplayed Ellie must create the river, the havoc, by themselves. And they do.

Of the convict, who says little in the story but talks up a storm in the script, Faulkner wrote, “he’s mentally only about 15 or 16 years old, and by his own lights, he’s quite honorable and dependable.” With layered, deeply felt emotions, Baird exudes that perplexed, driven, yet noble mindset: an erring knight in a mud-soaked Parchman jumpsuit (accurate costumes by Alina Bolovikova) taking on the template of all rogue rivers.

Though some of the peripheral characters tend to cartoon Southerners, Geno Carr shines in several cameos, especially as the Cajun who befriends Atkins and teaches him the difference between “toil” and “work.”

Taken on its own terms, without reference to “Old Man,” Way Downriver is somewhat effective — thanks to Baird, Fetgatter, and Carr. But it dilutes the original with such strained thematic import that Faulkner would not have approved.

“If one begins to write about the injustice of society,” Faulkner said about his story, “then one has stopped being primarily a novelist and has become a polemicist or a propagandist. The fiction writer is not that. He will use the injustice of society, the inhumanity of people...as any other tool in telling the story, which is not about the injustice or the inhumanity of people, but of people, with their aspirations and their struggles and the bizarre, the comic, and the tragic conditions they get themselves in — into simply coping with themselves and one another and the environment.”

Way Downriver

Way Downriver, adapted from William Faulkner’s novella “Old Man” by Edward Morgan

Directed by David Ellenstein; cast: Richard Baird, Benjamin Cole, Robert Grossman, Sara Fetgatter, Max Macke, John Herzog, Geno Carr; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Alina Bokovikova; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Melanie Chen; props, Andrea Gutierrez; projections, Aaron Rumley

Playing through May 8; Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

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