Danger: Runaway drama

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As the title of Mark Medoff’s 1973 drama suggests, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? was intended to revolve around a young man named Stephen Ryder – and nicknamed Red – who dreams of breaking free from his humdrum life as a cook in Foster’s Diner in a moribund New Mexico town. But as the current revival at Carolina Actor’s Studio Theatre confirms, Red does very little to act upon his discontent until a wild Vietnam vet and his hippie girlfriend blow into the front door. They terrorize and humiliate the diner’s employees – and a trio of customers haplessly caught in the crossfire.

When Teddy and Clarisse enter, purely by chance because their car has broken down, Red Ryder abruptly ceases to be a sensitive, realistic coming-of-age story, descending into a random universe of fright, violence, and melodrama. Teddy is unhinged, volatile, and cruel, and Medoff has the wisdom to climb aboard this dynamo and ride him wherever he wishes to go. Trouble is, Medoff doesn’t have the artfulness or conviction to even subtly manicure Teddy’s rampage into a meaningful statement – about small town Western life, about America, or about the harrowing effects of the Vietnam War.

So enjoy the Ryder ride, for Charles LaBorde has boldly and brilliantly directed this CAST production, beginning by turning the performing space about 20º clockwise for the spot-on diner set he co-designed with Buddy Hanson (who fittingly appears as the owner before and after the epic dust-up). More importantly, LaBorde has disdained the movie and off-Broadway templates in casting Teddy. Instead of going the wild-eyed Marjoe Gortner route, LaBorde has gone with JR Jones, a muscular, combat-ready, Samuel L. Jackson type.

And what a terrifying, powerhouse performance Jones delivers! The sheer intensity of Jones – not to mention the intimidation factor – should prevent anyone from second-guessing LaBorde for losing the topicality of the white-trash Tuscon route. While I hesitate to estimate how much LaBorde added to Jones’s sizzle onstage, I can confidently apportion kudos to J.R. Adduci, who conceived the fight choreography and is on the receiving end for a good portion of it.

At times channeling an inner Jerry Lewis, Adduci gives a fine performance as Richard – an effete academic doubly victimized in the heat of battle. Seriously injured as he stands up for himself, his wife Clarisse, and her precious violin, all he gets for his pains is his wife’s scorn. This subplot is as juicy as the Red Ryder motif, with all kinds of sensational violence and humiliation, and Kathleen Taylor gives Clarisse a capricious regality that is icier than her elegance. Her spunk, as opposed to her husband’s, earns bravos from Teddy, but she isn’t spared her own sensational humiliation.

Teddy harps on Red more insistently, probably because he takes Red’s absurd connection with the comic strip hero as a personal affront. Or a challenge. So we get a diabolical twist on the coming-of-age storyline when Teddy forces Red to portray his heroic namesake, returning from his long dusty travels and receiving an amorous greeting from his faithful Penelope. The girlfriend, portrayed by diner waitress Angel in Teddy’s skit, actually adores Red in real life. So having Red finally obliged to kiss her at gunpoint is deeply humiliating to Angel, too.

The complex chemistry between Red and Angel could hardly be improved upon, thanks to the best work I’ve ever seen from Amy Wada as the slightly plump Angel and the triumphantly plausible mix of cowardice and courage from Sam Crawford as Red. Karen Roberts-Caporino, as the drugged hippie who becomes progressively more and more uncomfortable with Teddy, and John Xenakis, as the proprietor of the filling station next door, are also pitch-perfect.

Belatedly, Medoff does return to his main story, weaving an unexpectedly lengthy postlude after Teddy hits the road. What unifies the action we see here, albeit flimsily, are the lasting effects on survivors of passing through the crucible of a war zone, even if it’s only an hour-and-a-half.

You’ll probably have lingering memories of this production yourself.

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