According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Runner Stumbles

Suspected of having more than God and the confessional between them, a priest is accused of a nun's murder after her remains are found in his garden. Despite one unforgettable scene, sporadic passionate performances, and an intriguing real story as its foundation, The Runner Stumbles is structurally unsound, slow in pace and boring in long stretches.

Cynthia Darlow, Ashley West and Mark L. Montgomery
Photo by Jennifer Maufrais

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

To uphold doctrine, or not to uphold doctrine, that is the question. The doctrine in point is Catholic, and the question is lobbied between feeler Sister Rita (Ashley West) and thinker Father Rivard (Mark L. Montgomery) in Milan Stitt's The Runner Stumbles. But the dilemma isn't confined to a lengthy discussion. It instead oozes across the stage like a blob, entangling the legs and arms of the well-intentioned as well as vengeful people who all want to weigh in on the debate. And when dissension is taken to the extreme, there is usually bloodshed.

Father Rivard
is under the gun for the murder of Sister Rita, but he claims he's innocent. With the smooth integration of flashbacks and courtroom scenes, the play unfolds the events that led to her untimely death, but Stitt's approach is quite stoic and omissive of some of the real story's drama. The playbill includes some choice details about the true story that began in 1906, but very little of it translates to the stage here. Father Rivard had enlisted the assistance of Sister Rita to teach the children at the school that he founded. Sister Rita does her job with enthusiasm and passion, but her approach to helping the children with their sorrows and their problems extends well past the Catholic Church's teachings. Instead of a rigid execution of policy, Sister Rita prefers to allow emotion and heart to cushion the policies. She challenges Rivard, and to his own dismay, excites him. These two pillars of godliness clash amicably at first, until Sister Rita's unrelenting need to be humane even in the face of disobedience turns the tide.

is an austere, joy-deprived Father Rivard, and rightly so. The script and direction by Scott Alan Evans is so driven by Rivard's cruelty that I was fully expecting Montgomery to be on his knees, facing the cross and whipping himself with something barbed to stay the temptations to be a normal human being. Unfortunately, it also makes his opening "I'm innocent" position difficult to debunk or even care about. He's not alone in Unsympathetic Land. West's Sister Rita embodies the benevolence and dutiful nature of a nun, but her willingness to take Father Rivard's spiritual and physical punishments is alienating in spite of her difficult childhood. And since the victim and purported victimizer of this play are both hard to identify with, the audience is at a loss when it comes to who to side with and what lesson or meaning to draw from the play.

The Runner Stumbles
has a good supporting cast who all make great appendages in the blob, jumping in rather than fleeing from the hungry mass of opinions. Almost everyone from the mouthy housekeeper Mrs. Shandig (Cynthia Darlow) and the Bishop's right hand man Monsignor Nicholson (James Murtaugh) to students Erna Prindle (Julie Jesneck) and Louise (Christina Bennett Lind) have distinct positions on the doctrine debate, whether they realize it or not. However, the slow pacing of the play dilutes the impact that each of these characters make. Not quite a court drama and not quite a religious drama, The Runner Stumbles is definitely as talky as the two. There are long stretches of serious, reverent conversation that occasionally are broken by deliberate stabs at other denominations and genuflections. The set design by Dana Moran Williams is wonderfully practical, beautiful, and ironic. Genuine gates hide panels of heavenly clouds and lush landscapes that are lit to punctuate a mood or an action. The panels also represent God's omnipresence, and they never let the audience forget that the characters are aiming to do for God and unto God, despite their many failures.

After 30 years, The Runner Stumbles returns to New York without a bang. But the trouble lies mostly with the script. The story takes two steps forward and two steps back, and never gets its footing. The particular performance I attended even had a false ending, where audience members began to clap prematurely before the last, lackluster scene. What it lacks in structure and excitement, however, it compensates for in establishing Catholicism as a dominant entity, most notably in the line delivered by Mrs. Shandig: "I didn't know there were Catholics. Just God." Whether the characters want to yield or not, they're living in a Catholic world with Catholic rules. And no amount of braying, bloodshed and court rulings will change that before the show is over.


Through November 24th. Tickets: $20. TicketCentral: 212-279-4200;
Theatre Row - Samuel Beckett Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.New York, NY 10001)

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