It is early morning in Foster’s Diner, in New Mexico, when the curtain goes up on When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? Two of the protagonists are enacting a daily ritual: Young Stephen Ryder is reading the morning newspaper, picking his teeth, and showing a 1950’s macho attitude as Angel, the chubby waitress, cleans up and tries to engage him in conversation. They are at cross-purposes; she wants him to stay in the dusty outpost, hoping that in time he will recognize her female charms, he wants to get out and make a success of himself in the big world. His distant goal is to be a waiter in a tuxedo and own a Corvette Sting Ray “the color of money.” She quarrels with his insistence on being called “Red,” arguing that it does not make sense since his hair is brown. He insists that “when I was a kid I had red hair.” He identifies with the cowboy hero Red Ryder, with whom he shares a last name. The routine continues as, in turn, Clark, the owner of the franchise, and Lyle, who owns the adjacent gas station and motel, make their entrances, doing and saying their usual things. Lyle is a man in his early sixties. He has a slight disability that forces him to walk with a crutch, and he has designs on the waitress Angel even though she is probably forty years his junior.
Emerging from one of Lyle’s motel rooms to descend on the diner are two symbols of big cities and life in the fast lane, Richard and Clarisse Ethredge. He is a successful businessman, and she is an equally successful concert violinist. She carries a violin case containing a Guarnerius violin. There is an aura about them of self-confidence and success. They settle in to have breakfast and listen to the idle, if somewhat hostile, chatter of the locals.
With the arrival of Teddy and Cheryl, a feeling of unease and danger enters the forlorn and dusty diner. Teddy is a forceful man in his early thirties, dressed in an army fatigue jacket; he switches back and forth between being jocular and quietly threatening. For much of the play, he affects a broad Western accent. Cheryl is pretty, slightly scared, and braless—the last causes some helpless staring by Stephen and Lyle.
The tenor of the action has changed. Where before Teddy’s arrival there was a feeling of constantly shifting focus and lazy morning activity, there is now a decided power center: Teddy. He forces all present to focus their attention on him and, under the guise of jovial horseplay, intrudes brutally into their lives and dreams. He is quick to recognize the tangled tensions of sex and...
(The entire section is 1052 words.)