When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, Circle Theatre. Mark Medoff’s excruciating drama, about a sadistic Vietnam vet terrorizing a New Mexico diner, makes audience members the real hostages. Unless you refuse to care, you either side with the hapless victims, none of whom attempts anything remotely heroic (very unpopular today), or with the gun-flailing thug. And for better and worse, Jay Fontanetta’s staging makes it hard to look away from this no-win situation.

Unlike Robert E. Sherwood in his classic 1935 drama The Petrified Forest, where the identical plight elicits truths from the terrified customers, Medoff produces an exercise in humiliation: Teddy, the role-playing psychopath, interrogates his captives searching for weak spots. His most concentrated bullying is reserved for Stephen, a disgruntled slacker ultimately motivated by Teddy’s homegrown terrorism to leave this dead-end town.

In Fontanetta’s relentlessly naturalistic staging, the domestic squabble that erupts between the tourists comes off as excessive even for this play. The eight strategically unremarkable ensemble members could be us–a painful possibility. Andrew Kottler gives the sullen Stephen a hangdog resentment that speaks volumes about death by small town. Tim Gittings as Teddy, a human rattlesnake, is undaunted by Medoff’s showy talk, a weird fusion of wiseass insults and college bull. And as the potentially poignant waitress, Kelly Schumann registers too little, failing to earn the pathos of her final moment onstage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.