SAN DIEGO — There are words for shows like "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" at the Bowery Theatre through July 19.
Raw. Disturbing. Electrifying.
And Kim McCallum's performance is the live wire that turns the electricity on.
To say that nothing much happens until McCallum lopes onto the set of Foster's Diner is not meant to suggest any disrespect to the fine cast in this powerful play. Foster's Diner is a little place in the desert of southern New Mexico where nothing is supposed to happen.
The coffee maker light is always on. The specialty of the house is always steak and eggs. The owner, Clark, is always planning to sell the dump and Stephen (Red) Ryder, who works there, is always planning to leave.
Then, McCallum enters as Teddy, a shabbily dressed Vietnam veteran with a wild, reddish gold mane, and soon it becomes clear that all the cards are about to be redealt.
At first Teddy's danger signs are subtle, like those of a big lazy cat stalking prey. Then, he begins to verbally menace the workers and patrons of the establishment. Eventually, he uses brute force. But his main weapon is the truth. Like Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh," he destroys by stripping away illusions and making people face what they are.
His ripest targets are the pseudo-civilized well-to-do couple just passing through, Richard and Clarisse.
Teddy's brutality brings out Richard's viciousness as well as the shallowness of his relationship with his wife.
But his most crucial target is Ryder, who, on having his nose rubbed in his life, is forced, finally, to change it.
As to why Teddy is the way he is, no explanation is given, but the character is real enough to allow for many possibilities. He may be punishing what he sees as the hypocrites of the society that sent him to war, or he may be driven to destroy the illusions he himself lost in the course of his battles.
In a way, too, Teddy's ruthlessness can be seen as that of a writer with his characters. He tries to manipulate people, but ultimately he can only bring out what is there. He can bully Ryder into galloping around on a broom, but he can't force him to make love to Angel, the sweet, overweight girl who works in the diner. He also can't bring out cruelty in those like Angel where none exists.
Under Jim Bush's excellent direction, the cast rides the swelling and cresting waves of tension beautifully. They all stretch to reveal something surprising below the surface.
As Ryder, David Kornbluth captures the confusion under the young boy's tough veneer and makes his later transformation believable.
Brian Salmon's Richard erupts frighteningly through his icy demeanor, while Cheryl Harvey's Clarisse smolders through hers.
Rosemary Tyrrell is a sweet, sad Angel, and Garreth Broom a heartless if law-abiding Clark. As Lyle, the crippled owner of the gas station and motel next door, Jim Diehm strikes a solid note of unflappable decency. Dana Hooley is sympathetic as Teddy's nervous girlfriend.
Lawrence Czoka's sound is strong and effective. The set with its green vinyl bar stools, Wurlitzer jukebox and doughnuts on the counter, comes across like all the cheap, greasy, roadside dives that ever were. Well lighted by Sean La Motte, the design is based on the same one crafted by Arthur Henderson when the Bowery offered this show four years ago as its first Mark Medoff production.
That show also starred McCallum, the artistic director of the Bowery Theatre, as Teddy and was a huge success. It looks as if it has happened again.
Two one-act black comedies by Medoff are scheduled to begin Monday and run Monday-Wednesday concurrently with "Ryder" through July 15.
"The Froegle Dictum" is a love triangle about a Vietnam veteran, somewhat like a young version of Teddy in "Red Ryder," who is obsessed with the beautiful wife of a bookish man and makes several unsuccessful suicide attempts to impress her. "The Ultimate Grammar of Life" is another triangle about a thief who steals a man's wallet and then tries to take away the man's wife and, ultimately, his way of life.
Director of both plays is Darrin Shaughnessy. Set design by Erik Hanson. Lighting by La Motte. Sound by Czoka. Stage manager is Marlin Peterson.
"WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER?" By Mark Medoff. Director is Jim Bush. Set based on Arthur Henderson's original design. Lighting by Sean La Motte. Sound by Lawrence Czoka. Costume coordinator is Mickey Mullany. Stage manager is Kathy Hansen. With David Kornbluth, Rosemary Tyrrell, Jim Diehm, Garreth Broom, Brian Salmon, Cheryl Harvey, Dana Hooley and Kim McCallum. At 8 p.m. Thursday--Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays through July 19. At the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., San Diego.