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Eudora Welty short story makes a drama of atmosphere and humor

The Hitch-Hikers Play by Larry Ketron, adapted from a short story by Eudora Welty. Directed by Dann Florek. Fragments from fragmented lives comprise the slight substance of ``The Hitch-Hikers,'' at the WPA Theatre. Playwright Larry Ketron has adapted and enlarged upon an early Eudora Welty short story about the adventures of an affable traveling salesman on a warm September night in Dulcie, Miss., in 1939.

The hitchhikers of the title are Sanford and Sobby (John Anthony and Peter Zapp), a pair of vagrants for whom salesman Tom Harris (Timothy Carhart) acts as good Samaritan. While Tom is dallying with a longtime girlfriend (Frances Fisher) and acquiring a new admirer (Elizabeth McGovern), Sanford almost steals his car. In part to prevent the theft, Sobby strikes his fellow tramp with a bottle. Suspended over the rest of the action is whether the blow will prove fatal.

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The performance, staged by Dann Florek, captures and communicates a sympathetic feeling for a Deep South milieu and some of its denizens. Mr. Carhart invests Tom with an unassuming, low-key charm that appeals equally to the two attractive women in his life: Miss McGovern's ardent young Carol and Miss Fisher's older but wiser Ruth. At the play's end, it remains a question whether Carol will succeed with the restless salesman where Ruth has failed.

``The Hitch-Hikers'' does not so much conclude as subside. In its vignettes and conversations, it is primarily a play of shifting moods, humorous observation, and atmosphere. The Dulcie folk of the occasion include Wyman Pendleton as a good-hearted hotel clerk, Edward Cannan as a nasty sheriff, and William Jihmi Kennedy as the hotel's black porter. With its many quick scene changes, the adaptation suggests a scenario with natural motion-picture possibilities.

Designer Edward T. Gianfrancesco has cleverly provided for the play's numerous locales with a unit set that can suggest an open highway, a roadside stand, and a variety of interiors. The production has been lighted by Phil Monat and costumed by Don Newcomb.