Travis Ammons Nails the Role of Sadistic Psychopath in Texas Rep's Suspenseful Drama When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?

The setup:

In Mark Medoff's award-winning play, a sleepy roadside diner in southern New Mexico awakens with a bang when invaded by a sadistic psychopath.

The execution:

The action begins in a deceptively desultory fashion as Angel (Lyndsay Sweeney) arrives six minutes late for her shift, replacing the night-shift operator, Red (Keenan Hurley), who complains about the inconvenience. The manager, Clark (Alan Hall), stops in briefly, as does Lyle (Ted Doolittle), who runs the nearby gas station. The rhythm is natural, unhurried, aided strongly by a brilliant set by Trey Otis which is fully detailed and invitingly authentic, including booths, tables, counter, an upstage small kitchen and a bathroom. Realism is the order of the day.

A couple, Clarisse (Lendsey Kersey) and Richard (Tom Long), on their way to New Orleans, enter to eat as their Cadillac is gassed up. The pace picks up with the entrance of Teddy and Cheryl, garbed as though they're fresh from the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Teddy is played by Travis Ammons -- tall, auburn hair down to his shoulders, energized -- and Cheryl is portrayed by Katrina Ellsworth, subdued, even sullen, and obviously dominated by Teddy. Their van needs a new carburetor, and with easy charm Teddy persuades Lyle to get one, even though it is Sunday. Teddy is gregarious, talkative, the ultimate extrovert as he intrudes on Clarisse and Richard, challenges Red, playfully but with an increasingly sinister tone, and in a few short moments dominates the diner, linking all its inhabitants together with an awareness of and distaste for him. Teddy's need to get his own way in the smallest detail segues from charm to bullying, first by force of personality and then by other means. The details are gripping...and will not be spoiled here.

The success of this suspense drama hinges on Teddy, a difficult role, that of a control freak, cruel, even sadistic, with an animated energy that is riveting though repellent. Ammons nails the part, and his brilliant performance adds enormously to the success of the production. Director Steven Fenley has found an excellent cast and shaped it into a smoothly functioning ensemble -- they are all great, and Doolittle is superb. Ammons glides wondrously from a fresh element in this mosaic into its dominant core, cementing and enhancing its naturalism. The evening may not be everyone's cup of tea, but even sadistic cruelty can be engrossing. Playwright Medoff knows how to create suspense and how to end a scene, and he has included indications of how the events of the day have altered lives, so he has not shortchanged the other characters. But his depiction of Teddy is ruthless, and all the more frightening, as Teddy is so plausible that he may be the boy next door, or the next youth with a gun in the shopping mall.

The lighting design by Mark Lewis works well, and includes effective shadings as the hours pass. Steven Fenley created the sound effects and Macy Perrone the costumes -- both are suitably unobtrusive and appropriate. And the set by Mark Lewis, described above, would not be out of place on B'way.

The verdict:

A drama begins quietly, and gains increasing speed and power as Travis Ammons enters as Teddy, a psychopath, in a compelling performance. He dominates the stage and brings this suspenseful drama to vibrant life.

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? continues through November 4, at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Road. For information or ticketing, call 281-583-7573 or contact the company website.

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Jim Tommaney