By Ruth Ross
Theological dramas, particularly of the Catholic bent, are often difficult for nonbelievers and general audiences to follow, but add a crime or scandal to the mix and you've hit pay dirt! Think 2004's play and subsequent film, Doubt, which treated sexual abuse of minors and Milan Stitt's 1976 religious drama, The Runner Stumbles, that highlighted illicit feelings between a priest and a young nun that results in her death.
The former play has been performed by community and regional theater groups for a while, but the latter has not been seen either on Broadway or on local stages in recent memory. Now, director Eric Hafen has mounted The Runner Stumbles as the Bickford Theatre's initial offering of 2016. Despite some rather convoluted religious reasoning on the part of the playwright, the production manages to convey the tortured journeys of two young souls trapped by theology and centuries of tradition.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan must have been, pardon the pun, one God-forsaken place in the early decades of the last century. Small villages, many of them logging settlements, were lonely, inhospitable places populated mostly by men and subject to the harsh weather of long winters and bleak landscapes. On an appropriately austere set designed by Jim Bazewicz, the story moves from courtroom and cell to the priest's study to the rectory kitchen and back again as the plot, "recounted" by the vicar, unfolds onstage. (Above L-R: Rik Walter, JC Hoyt, Christopher Reyes, Erna Prindle, Shakur Tolliver)
"Exiled" in 1906 to Solon, Michigan for the "crime" of over-enthusiasm and flouting formalities to address church officials and to write a book about St. Augustine, establish a school and save souls, Rev. Brian Rivard (Rik Walter, left) is sent a very young, very new nun, to help educate the children. Although he has reined in a youthful passion to present an ascetic, stern visage to the world, Sr. Rita (Lizzie Engelberth) proudly proclaims she is a human being who happens to be a nun, not the other way around, a declaration that should set off alarm bells in the priest's mind. Rita busily and enthusiastically sets about planting a flower garden and barging in on Fr. Rivard to discuss her latest innovations, much to the dismay of the rectory's housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig, a convert to Catholicism and a fervent proponent of its tenets. When two older nuns in the convent contract tuberculosis, Sr. Rita moves into the rectory. Sparks fly, passions are kindled (below) and disaster ensues. Accused of murdering Sr. Rita, Fr. Rivard finds himself on trial for his life and attempts to explain what happened to a skeptical prosecutor and the audience. Only at the play’s final scene is the perpetrator revealed, and it is a surprise (no spoilers).
The acting is for the most part superb, although on opening weekend it was sometimes difficult to hear the actors unless one sat in the front center; they are not miked and often turn to each other to speak. Rik Walter was an appropriately tortured, melancholy Father Rivard. Starved for companionship but unable to admit it (even to himself), he is taken aback and eventually won over by the effervescent demeanor of St. Rita, played with youthful energy by Lizzie Engelberth. As defense lawyer Toby Felker, JC Hoyt comes across as a ditherer, but he believes in Fr. Brivard and musters his skill to defend the priest. Duncan M. Rogers' Msgr. Nicholson is one tough religious taskmaster who leaves no room for humanity when dealing with an enthusiastic Rivard. He represents the fear instilled in parishioners (and clergy) by a stern Catholic Church. And Liz Zazzi bustles about as nosy Mrs. Shandig, clucking over Rivard and casting a disapproving eye on Sr. Rita. It's clear that her character fancies herself the moral center in this personal drama.
Supporting roles are well played by Ava Serene Portman (Louise, a student), Christopher Reyes (the prosecutor), Kelley McAndrews (jailhouse cook and former parishioner Erna Prindle) and Shakur Tolliver (Amos, the jailer).
Angela Rouse's costumes evoke 1911 Michigan, and Roman Klima's atmospheric lighting casts a melancholy spell on the proceedings. The production eschews elaborate scenery to focus our attention on this very sad, very human story.
Written over 40 years ago and based on true events told to Milan Stitt by his wife, The Runner Stumbles highlights the endless debate between religion and love, celibacy and sex, all in the name of religious extremism and fanaticism. Talk of religion seems to permeate our daily lives today as various factions argue over who has the moral high ground; love (for one’s fellow citizens) often gets lost in the crossfire.
And the title? Well, just as a runner can be tripped up by an unseen, unexpected obstacle that can cause him to ultimately lose the race, so is Fr. Rivard, in his "race" to religious purity and goodness, tripped up by feelings he has tried to repress for years. Both outcomes are disastrous.
The Runner Stumbles will be performed at the Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Hgts. Road (in the Morris Museum), Morristown, through Feb. 14. For information and tickets, call 973-971-3706 or visit www.morrismuseum.org online.
Photos by Warren Westura.