Entertainment :: Theatre

The Runner Stumbles
by Christopher Soden
EDGE Contributor
Saturday Apr 19, 2008

Corey Whaley and Julie Osborne in "The Runner Stumbles."
Corey Whaley and Julie Osborne in "The Runner Stumbles."   
There are several ways to consider Milan Stitt’s The Runner Stumbles. Vatican I versus Vatican II. The Singing Nun wrestles with Mel Gibson. Old Testament God of Wrath versus New Testament God of Love. The premise is fairly straightforward. During a trial in which Father Rivard stands accused of murdering Sister Rita, it comes to light that the two were in love. This is not difficult to understand. Though Rivard and Rita find themselves in the throes of ongoing and increasingly heated debate, often the combustion behind animosity is very similar to the friction that creates passion and romance. In addition, Sister Rita is everything that Father Rivard is not. Spiritually generous, emotionally available, non-judgmental, demonstrative, enthusiastic, light. Who could help falling in love with her?

As I have already suggested, Father Rivard and Sister Rita are reasonably well developed characters that also represent opposing views of God, Love, and what it means to be a devout and effective Christian and Roman Catholic. I’m no expert on liturgy but it doesn’t seem as if Rita’s worldviews fly in the face of Catholic doctrine or amount to heresy. And Father Rivard isn’t Draconian, not really. You can see why, dealing with the trauma and tragedies he faced as a child he would turn out the way he has. Like the rest of us, Rivard and Rita have hidden influences shaping their lives. The Monsignor is always poised to catch Rivard making some mistake and Sister Rita longs more than anything to love and be loved.

It is difficult to explain my dissatisfaction with "The Runner Stumbles," but I can tell you it has nothing to do with Rover Dramawerks’ production which (not surprisingly) is skillful, compelling, absorbing and buoyed by impressive performances. Corey Whaley (Father Rivard) is tortured, earnest, melancholy and utterly human. Julie Osborne (Sister Rita) embodies the sweetness and nurturing demeanor of a "Bride of Christ." Gary Anderson (Toby Felker) as Rivard’s attorney has just the right mixture of skepticism and sympathy.

You needn’t be a scholar of theology or religion to understand that no one single religion has all the answers or provides an unwavering pathway to Truth. For all the careful balance and structure of "The Runner Stumbles" and its equivocal treatment of anti-Catholicism I couldn’t make out Milan Stitt’s position on the subject. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But when you consider Christopher Durang’s "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" or Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America" and their attitudes towards organized religion, "The Runner Stumbles" feels lopsided.

Sister Rita enters a small, isolated Roman Catholic Diocese where Father Rivard and his housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig, behave as if they’re living out a sentence. When Sister doggedly tries to inject a note of sanity into this abyss she winds up getting executed for it. Despite Father Rivard’s complexity and struggle the play seems to depict him (or the Catholic Church) as the culprit. Even though he’s exonerated, Stitt still seems to think that Rivard is some kind of villain. For all it’s attempts to seem like an objective search for truth "The Runner Stumbles" feels like a fixed race.

Rover Dramawerks Presents : The Runner stumbles by Milan Stitt. Cox Building Playhouse, Plano, Texas. April 3-26,2008.

Christopher Soden received his MFA in Poetry from Vermont College in 2005. He is a teacher, lecturer, actor, performer and playwright. In addition he writes film, theatre and literary critique. In his spare time he likes to read, cook, dine, do crossword puzzles, chill and nap.

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