Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Runner Stumbles

In northern Michigan in 1911, a nun was found murdered. In the early 1970s, playwright Milan Stitt wrote a murder mystery/courtroom drama based on this story and used it to examine love, religion, and god. And in 2012, Retro Productions and The Bleecker Company moved their solidly entertaining Off-Off-Broadway production of Stitt's play, The Runner Stumbles, to the Off-Broadway Arclight Theatre for an open run.

Casandera M.J. Lollar,
Christopher Patrick Mullen
Kristen Vaughan
The story is told in flashbacks as Father Rivard (the amazing Christopher Patrick Mullen) stands trial for the murder of Sister Rita (the terrific Casandera M.J. Lollar). We see Father Rivard and Sister Rita  thrown together when two other nuns come down with consumption, and Sister Rita has to move into the rectory to avoid contagion. We are witnesses as the two start butting heads. Rivard sees the church and god as strict and punishing; Rita sees them as loving and humane. Rivard believes in rules; Rita believes in emotions. Their disagreements spill over into other people's lives, as when they compete to console a woman whose mother is about to die; the differences in their approaches are enough to make the poor woman's head spin.

Rivard is an amazing creation. While Sister Rita is a fascinating study of someone coming to believe that maybe there is a place for her in a difficult world, Rivard is anger and fear and love and myth and flesh and blood. The writing is so good, and Mullen is so present and real, so mercurial yet subtle, that even Rivard's worst behavior is comprehensible. And while Rivard's trial examines whether he is guilty of murder, the play examines whether he is guilty of hypocrisy, rigidity, and an inability to love.

The show and this production have their flaws. The first act doesn't quite gel, and some of the characters are thinly drawn. Director Peter Zinn does a good job overall, but the show's pacing needs tightening, particularly in the transitions between scenes. The fights are awkwardly staged. The show gets a bit melodramatic here and there. But the cast is strong (standouts include Heather E. Cunningham as Rivard's housekeeper, Ric Sechrest as the lawyer who defends Rivard, and Alisha Spielmann as the woman whose mother is dying), the story is compelling, and the show is well worth seeing.

(press ticket; second row on the aisle)

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