Rover Dramawerks earthen vessel show holds a treasure

By Penny Rathbun, Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Rover Dramawerks “The Runner Stumbles” is an earthen vessel of a production.

The verse in 2 Corinthians says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

The verse also can be applied to the conflict between Father Rivard and Sister Rita, the two main characters in Milan Stitt’s play. The two let the crockery part of their psyches obliterate the treasure part, but it’s easy to see why.

They are stationed in a remote Michigan town about a century ago in the dead of winter, or it seems like the dead of winter. Both are at the height of their reproductive years, and hormones quickly overrule any vow of chastity.

Naturally almost all the other characters in the play disapprove mightily. The story is told in flashbacks as Father Rivard sits in jail. He has been arrested for the murder of Sister Rita.

The courtroom scenes are especially cramped and odd looking. One very important speech is delivered so that hardly anyone can see or hear the actor saying the lines. That flaw occurs with some regularity throughout the play, although it is partially due to the configuration of the theatre for this show, with the audience on three sides.

There is also a stumbling block to suspension of disbelief with Rivard’s ill fitting cassock. The number of times it has to be put on and taken off proves that hook-and-fastener tape is not always a godsend in the theatre.

All that is the earthen vessel part. Get over it. There is a treasure to be found.

Corey Whaley as Father Rivard is perfect casting. His boyish face and “aw-shucks-mam” mannerisms are charming enough, but add a clerical collar to what otherwise is an attractive bachelor, and Sister Rita doesn’t have a chance.

His portrayal of the priest from earnest pastor through doubts, forbidden sexual attraction, authoritarianism and profound sadness is a journey well worth traveling for the audience.

The advent of Sister Rita brings an abundance of internal conflict for herself and all the other characters. Julie Osborne gives the nun the kind of tamped-down enthusiasm that’s going to get the character in trouble one way or another. Osborne successfully navigates the very fine line between flyingnun cuteness and “Black Narcissus” overdrama. Her Sister Rita is likable and someone you wouldn’t mind instructing your kids.

Whaley’s and Osborne’s scenes together are very engaging. It is easy to
empathize with their plight even if their scenes are a bit overlong here and
there, but that is the fault of the script.

Tina Kane as Mrs. Shandig, the disapproving housekeeper, is an ideal catalyst for all this underground passion between the priest and nun. Rather than play the part as an obvious judgmental presence, Kane makes Shandig’s attraction to Rivard and her jealousy of Rita visible.

Monsignor Nicholson is the bishop’s secretary. Ron Eubanks as the cleric is ever so self-important and a walking examination of everyone elses’ conscience.

Jarod Warren is a remarkably welldressed prosecutor and makes it clear Eubanks does not have a monopoly on self-importance.

Gary Anderson plays Toby Felker, Rivard’s defense attorney. Anderson makes the lawyer appropriately seedy, but amusing as he makes Rivard’s plight even worse.

Amanda Elrod as Erna Prindle and Heather McCormick as Louise provide stolid portrayals of parishioners.

Michael Sturlin is a dependable presence as the jailer.

“The Runner Stumbles” is definitely an “earthen vessel” show, but look past all that and go on a treasure hunt.

The Rover Dramawerks production runs at the Cox Building Playhouse in Plano through April 26.