PlayMakers Repertory Company will open its 2002-2003 season with a gala production of Sunrise in My Pocket: The Comical, Tragical, True History of Davy Crockett (Oct. 16-Nov. 10). Award-winning television and theater director Jeffrey Hayden will adapt and direct Edwin Justus Mayer’s humorous and inspirational folk drama about the last days of the famous frontiersman, Indian fighter, storyteller, and folk hero who died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836 during a pivotal battle in Texas’ war for independence from Mexico.

“I have always been intrigued with [Crockett] as an American icon,” says Hayden, who directed episodes of some of TV’s most successful comedies (“The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Andy Griffith Show”), dramas (“Route 66,” “Mannix,” “Peyton Place”), and documentaries (“Children in America’s Schools with Bill Moyers”), as well as numerous theatrical productions in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Hayden previously directed a PlayMakers production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring his wife, Eva Marie-Saint, and Judd Hirsch.

Hayden says, “I think Sunrise in My Pocket is very timely. It’s immediately topical even though it was written back in the 1930s. It speaks to where we are in the country today.”

Jeffrey Hayden studied theater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art under the legendary “Prof Koch” (Frederick Koch), who formed the PRC’s predecessor organization, the Carolina Playmakers, in 1918. The Carolina Playmakers played a key role in developing American folk dramas, such as Sunrise in My Pocket, and providing an invaluable forum for new writers, such as Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel) and Paul Green (The Lost Colony), to hone their play writing skills.

Hayden says the Davy Crockett of legend wore a buckskin jacket and pants, sported his trademark coonskin cap, and carried his favorite flintlock rifle, “Old Betsy,” in the crook of his left arm. He accomplished legendary feats of strength and guile and bravery.

To Baby Boomers, the legendary Tennessean will always be “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” sung not spoken. Many of them still know most of the lyrics to the title tune of the trend-setting 1954 Walt Disney film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, starring Fess Parker as Davy and Buddy Ebsen as his faithful sidekick George Russel.

Soon after that film’s release, it seemed that every little boy and girl in America was wearing coonskin cap, carrying a flintlock cap pistol or rifle, and repeating Crockett’s most famous maxim: “Be always sure you’re right, then GO AHEAD!” The poor raccoon population took years to recover from the coonskin-cap craze.

In fact, Davy Crockett was such a hit in the theaters and such a merchandising phenomenon that Walt Disney resurrected the character for a prequel, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956).

Jeffrey Hayden says the David Crockett of fact was born in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1786. Although he had very little formal education, he was a natural-born philosopher, a mighty hunter famous for killing bears and raccoons, an inveterate teller of tall tales, a fearless Indian fighter who distinguished himself during the Creek Indian War, and an idealistic three-term Congressman who championed the interests of small farmers and earned President Andrew Jackson’s eternal enmity by opposing the Jackson Administration’s brutal policy of forcibly relocating the eastern tribes of Native Americans to inhospitable western reservations.

Whether campaigning for Congress or penning his best-selling Autobiography, Hayden says, the charismatic Crockett habitually called himself David, not Davy. In 1835, when “Old Hickory” and Tennessee Governor William Carroll successfully conspired to scuttle Congressman Crockett’s latest reelection bid, Crockett told his political enemies: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” Texas, for Crockett, meant a chance for a fresh start.

It is at this point — during Crockett’s trek to Texas — that Sunrise in My Pocket begins. “It’s what you might call a ‘road play,’” says Jeffrey Hayden. “Davy Crockett (Kenneth P. Strong) meets a cast of characters that includes a Native American named Crawling Caterpillar (Douglas Spain), a pirate named Hardin (Mike Regan), a riverboat gambler named Thimblerig (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), and a Annie Oakley-type young lady named Annie Jones (Jamie Rose).”

Strong and Cornell are PRC company members; and Spain, Regan, and Rose are guest artists.

Sunrise in My Pocket is an outdoor drama,” Hayden points out, “in the sense that all of the scenes take place on this journey in a clearing or a swamp, beside a raging river, or outside the Alamo.”

Staging all of those outdoors scenes on the 500-seat Paul Green Theatre’s thrust stage presented a series of creative challenges for director Jeffrey Hayden, set designer Narelle Sissons, costume designer Marianne Custer, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer. “I think we have met all the challenges in a very interesting way,” Hayden says.

“Get ready for a good time and a lot of laughs,” Hayden adds. “Sunrise in My Pocket is in the genre of the [American] folk play, which I studied when I was here many years ago with Prof Koch. That’s part of why I am here doing it at this beautiful theater and why I am so excited about the nature of the play.”

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Sunrise in My Pocket Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 16-19, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m.; 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).