'Red Ryder' centers around terrifying day that becomes moment of awakening

Puzzled -- that was director Ernest Hemmings' reaction to the play "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?"

Hemmings is known for directing plays that have an edge to them, an adult message that may shock or offend but ultimately teaches the audience something. And Joe Hammond, theater professor at the College of Southern Nevada and the play's producer, had given him a kids' play to direct.

Then he read it. While the characters experience a life-changing event that shreds any of their leftover youthful innocence, "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" is far from a kids' play.

"The title does it no justice, because it's hokey," Hemmings says. "I thought it was going to be awful. It sat on my desk collecting dust for two months, and when I finally cracked it open, I was kind of shocked that it was so good."

The play, written by Mark Medoff, was originally staged in the early 1970s and had a successful off-Broadway run. It was made into a movie in 1979 starring Hal Linden and Lee Grant.

The setting is a restaurant in a sleepy New Mexico town. A Vietnam veteran and his girlfriend try to rob a well-to-do couple in the restaurant and end up holding everyone hostage, including the naive restaurant worker Stephen, whose nickname is Red Ryder.

What happens ends up being "the most terrifying day of their lives that is also a moment of awakening," Hemmings says.

"Red Ryder" fits Hemmings' style, he says, because it takes place during that weird time between the peace and love movement of the '60s and the tumultuous '70s. Some characters still carry the innocence of another era but lose it when confronted with the jarring reality of a new one.

"We all have that moment that makes you grow up," Hemmings says. "You're not noticing what's going on around you and then suddenly, you're faced with the moment" where you realize you're no longer a child.

"It really is a gorgeous story," he adds.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.