Celebrated playwright and screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer's dramatic biographical epic Sunrise in My Pocket: The Comical, Tragical, True History of Davy Crockett really gives David Crockett (1786-1836) — as he always called himself — his due. This humorous and inspirational American folk drama, skillfully adapted and superlatively staged for PlayMakers Repertory Company by guest director Jeffrey Hayden (Death of a Salesman), resurrects the legendary frontiersman, storyteller, Indian fighter, three-term Congressman, and hero of the Alamo back to life in all his ragged glory.
Although he was born in the backwoods of Tennessee and had little formal education, Crockett became a legend in his own lifetime, long before he died fighting in the War for Texas Independence at age 49. A natural orator with an appealing homespun philosophy and a large repertoire of Tall Tales, Crockett also was a natural leader in war and in peace, a determined battler on behalf of homesteaders ruthlessly displaced by greedy land speculators and their jackleg attorneys, and a stalwart opponent of President Andrew Jackson's policy of forcibly relocating the eastern tribes of Native Americans to desolate reservations in Oklahoma. That last position infuriated "Old Hickory" and cost Crockett his Congressional seat.
Crockett's subsequent trip from Tennessee to Texas, where he hoped to make a fresh start, is the subject of Sunrise in My Pocket, which Mayer wrote in the early 1940s. The time span of the play is October 1835 to January 1836.
Although he never dons the coonskin cap that was Davy Crockett's trademark in two Walt Disney movies, Kenneth P. Strong gives a positively heroic performance as the somewhat larger-than-life Crockett, who was fond of characterizing himself as "half horse, half alligator, and a little touch of snapping turtle. Strong's charismatic characterization captures the best of Crockett: his indomitable spirit, his bravery, his ingenuity, his generosity and, most of all, his fervent belief that all Americans should enjoy the freedom that is their birthright.
The motley company that Crockett leads to certain death at the Alamo includes a drunken Indian, a pirate, a swindler, and a harlot — if the audience judges them by the narrow standards of 19th-century moralizers. Crockett, too, sees their faults; but he also shows them the road to REDEMPTION. And he finds a kind of redemption himself, after the play closes, as one of the leaders of the desperate garrison that fought a hopeless but crucial battle to delay the Mexican army from overtaking Sam Houston's ragtag army.
Douglas Spain gives a cheeky characterization of Crawling Caterpillar, Crockett's faithful but "uppity" Harvard-educated Indian companion. "You have white skin, but a red heart," says "Catty" to Crockett.
Mike Regan is terrific as the fierce pirate Hardin. Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Jamie Rose give passionate performances as an unlikely "couple," the slippery conman Thimblerig and tomboyish Annie, a buckskin-clad sharpshooter with a shady past.
Ray Dooley is good as the indignant and bloodthirsty Captain Chase, the latest victim of Thimblerig's shell game; and David Doll (Stableboy), James Kalagher (Jimbo), and Adam Sheaffer complete the exceptionally strong supporting cast.
Jeffrey Hayden's artfully abridged script for this fabulous folk drama retains the core of Edwin Justus Mayer's script — and its timely messages about racial brotherhood and fighting for freedom — and Sunrise in My Pocket gives scenic designer Narelle Sissons, costume designer Marianne Custer, lighting designer Mary Lou Geiger and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer a chance to do some of their best work in recreating Crockett's wilderness world and the crusty characters who peopled it.
Hayden's entertaining abridgement of Sunrise in My Pocket opens PlayMakers Repertory Company's 2002-2003 with a literal and figurative bang. Don't miss it.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Sunrise in My Pocket Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 22-26, 29-Nov. 2, and Nov. 5-9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 and 10, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. (NOTE: There will be a discussion led by local psychoanalysts after the Nov. 3 performance.) $9-$34. 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.unc.edu/depts/playmkrs/playmakers/0203announcement.html.