Mark Mcdoff's increasingly vintage drama "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder" is about people's disinclination to make a change, even for the better, except under duress. UAA Theatre's gripping production keeps us glued to the plot long enough to let that critical point strike home.
The 2-hour play takes place in the 1970s in a small town diner somewhere in remote southern New Mexico. There the frustrated night shift cook, Stephen, aka Red (Chris Evans) snaps at the jolly waitress (Aspen Murray) about the lousy working conditions under miserly owner Clark (Seth A. Whipple). The only customers are the aging local gas station/motel owner Lyle (Michael J. Hidalgo) and a pair of well-heeled passers-through, Clarisse and Richard (Lisa-Marie Castro and Alex Albrecht).
Into this dead end enters a hippy drug dealer, Teddy (Caleb Bourgeois), and his tag-along girlfriend of the hour, Cheryl (Terra-Sang Patrone). He immediately starts belittling everyone in sight, about their looks and perceived weaknesses. The others try to ignore or rebuff his pushy questions and comments, but when he turns out to have a big knife and a gun, they start to do what he says.
The feeble attempts to resist him fail. He's a Vietnam vet, faster and stronger than anyone else, adept at fighting and, it appears, ready and willing to kill. Belittlement turns into humiliation as he forces his captives to re-enact an imagined love scene from an old western movie. Neither kindness nor disdain, culture nor education can stand up to brute force.
The main characters are all well-acted, but Bourgeois is particularly powerful in his portrayal of violence screened with the mocking veneer of "Batman's" Joker character. He repeatedly fingers and draws out the flaws of the victims like a Samuri psychologist. In the end, some of the hostages do find the courage to change and move beyond the limits of their lives as they saw them at the beginning of the show; others remain as they were, sad but unwilling to do what is necessary to move toward any alternative.
The set itself, by Daniel Glen Carlgren, is a wonder - a faithfully detailed diner with stools and booths, a kitchen, and big windows looking out onto the desert. But despite the openness it becomes troublingly claustrophobic as the tension mounts. David Edgecombe's direction keeps events moving tightly.
Nonetheless, there's something of an old-fashioned feel to the show, and I don't mean the fact that breakfast for two costs $3 with tip or that most of the men in the play seem to know how to replace a car generator in about 15 minutes. What's old-fashioned is that people could be so helpless for two hours.
The prepublicity suggested that the play had some resonance with the contemporary world of corporate domination. I don't see that at all. If the subject of a lone, crazy person willing to do anything to anyone to get his ill-considered way has any contemporary resonance it is with the acts of terror we've recently endured vicariously through the media. Of course if the "Red Ryder" incident were to happen to day, it would be over in 15 seconds, after everyone had whipped out their trusty smart phones and posted a picture of Teddy on social media sites.
"When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder" will be presented at 8 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Harper Theatre in the UAA Fine Arts Building.