Mark Medoff wrote his psychological thriller "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" in the '70s, when America confronted the failed idealism of flower power. This era was born in confusion after the naive certainty of the '50s lost its influence along with the popularity of simple heroes, like the cowboy Red Ryder. Medoff explores this confusion in a Southwestern diner where Teddy, a crazed criminal, holds a group of people hostage at gunpoint.
Teddy is a Vietnam vet who once believed in Red Ryder's clear-cut code of right and wrong, but witnessed the blurring of these lines in his own life. Teddy cruelly takes out his frustration on his prisoners, forcing them to disclose their own insecurities and delusions. The encounter turns into therapy, leaving each victim with a new sense of self.
With UCF Civic Theatre's decision to set the play in the present time, Medoff's meaning becomes muddled. Without directly experiencing Red Ryder mania and Vietnam, Teddy's psychotic ramblings seem just plain crazy instead of a reaction to the times.
In performance, meaning also became lost in poor line delivery, due mostly to the set design and limitations of a thrust stage, which forced the actors to talk many times with their backs to the audience. Often the cast became so caught up in the emotional intensity that they rushed their lines, so I heard more than one whisper of, "What did they say?"
The exception was Ryan Gilreath, who played Stephen, a young waiter with a desire to escape his small-town life. Gilreath meets the challenges of a complex role that requires restraint, humor and intensity. At complete odds with his environment, Stephen's spiked, blue hair and nose ring look rebellious, but, as Teddy (Mike Chappell) reveals, it is only a tough facade. When waitress Angel (Jessica Barretto) lets it slip that Stephen's nickname is Red, Teddy relentlessly tries to make Stephen live up to his hero's name. Gilreath makes Stephen's humiliation brutally real and uncomfortable.
If you take away the historical context of "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?," the characters no longer represent the aspects of society that clashed during the early '70s. The play is written to bring out this symbolism rather than convey natural human behavior in a crisis. The metaphors don't work here, so it becomes hard for the audience to truly understand Medoff's insight into a troubled time.