Originally produced in 1976 and later made into a film, "The Runner Stumbles" written by Milan Stitt, is quite contemporary. The plot turns on the murder of a progressive young nun. There have been many news stories in recent weeks about the adamant disapproval of Church authorities for the "radical" changes and attitudes of Catholic religious women, who wish to bring their orders into the modern world, kicking over the traces of a narrow field of existence and closed thought.
"The Runner Stumbles" tells the story of such a nun, Sister Rita, who is sent to run a school in a small Michigan town. Sister Rita has bright new ideas of how to run her school, and how to be the effective nun she dreams of being. The situation in which she finds herself becomes increasingly difficult. In those days, nuns and priests were completely separate, but in the situation of the play, Sister Rita and Father Rivard are thrown together, and in addition to their different ideas about their callings, they inevitably fall in love with each other. Sister Rita is found murdered and Father Rivard is accused, arrested and tried.
The play is a series of flashback scenes, sometimes a little confusing, beginning in Rivard's jail cell, and moving quickly to episodes beginning with Sister Rita's arrival, onward to his murder trial. Other people in the drama are Rivard's housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig, his attorney, Toby Felker, Rivard's superior, Monsignor Nicholson, Erna, a parishioner, and a schoolgirl, Louise. Closed minds, deception and heavy levels of personal and spiritual conflict are all present, and as it unfolds, one knows it's not just another murder mystery.
There were a couple of very minor opening-night pacing problems, but this play, on a bare-bones set, was more than effectively directed by John B. Coppola.
The two leading players were outstanding. Richard Warren, as Father Rivard, displayed a passionate, desperately conflicted man in a confining calling, and in a small town where anti-Catholic sentiment was quite open. The observer suffered with him as he wrestled with his inner doubts and battles, and the external problems he faced in trying to keep faith with his faith, as it were. He declares his innocence, but perhaps he isn't sure. Dedicated, and determined, Sister Rita, Kate Telfer brilliantly breezed into Rivard's life like a breath of lilac-scented air, and turned both their worlds (and their vocations) upside down. She is a woman who just cannot understand why things had to be so uptight and limited, yet when she tries to make changes, following her heart, it costs her life.
The supporting players were led by Barbara Lencheck as Rivard's housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig, a convert whose neurotic, obsessive devotion to Rivard oozes from every pore. Abigail Warren was sweet and touching as Erna Prindle, a woman trying to make a decent life as wife and mother in a town that many people would leave as fast as they could. Carl Gingola was Toby, Rivard's slightly bumbling attorney, (the only one in town) who believed in his client's innocence. Debbie West was one of Sister Rita's students, with a serious crush on Father Rivard. In the courtroom scene, she was wide-eyed and lethal. Jim Santora was the self-important, unsympathetic Monsignor. His character had echoes of David Ogden Stiers (M.A.S.H.) except that he wasn't the least bit funny. Effective as Amos, the kindly, blustering guard, was Mike Krysiuk, and the prosecutor was done carefully and diplomatically by Jim Santora. You wondered what he really thought about the case.
See this play, for its excellent acting and the provocative, ahead of the time ideas behind it. "The Runner Stumbles" will run two more weekends at the Weatherstone Studio, Darien Arts Center, with evenings and two Sunday matinees. May 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. and May 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. Call 203-655-5414.