THE RUNNER STUMBLES
at Bailiwick Repertory
Milan Stitt's The Runner Stumbles is a compassionate portrait of the love between a nun and a priest. Its central question--"What price holiness?"--is, if anything, even more combustible today than 76 years ago, when the actual events that Runner chronicles took place. The play is based on the 1911 Michigan trial of a priest accused of murdering a nun the same night a fire broke out in a church building.
Effectively adding the momentum of a murder mystery to the tension of the courtroom, Stitt employs flashbacks during the trial of Father Rivard to move events to a twin conclusion: the trial's surprise ending and the actual revelation of the crime. You can enjoy Runner as a sort of religious Romeo and Juliet, a courtroom thriller, or a topical treatment of the question of whether celibacy amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In this Huron Theater production you can also enjoy it simply for the acting.
Interestingly, the actual circumstances of the murder are kept back until the end; clues are not what we're meant to seek. It's the intangibles--the claustrophobic climate of an isolated Upper Peninsula parish, with an embattled church and confused believers--that Stitt wishes to evoke.
The priest and the nun are, however, very differently confused. A rebel without a doctrine, Father Rivard is even stiffer than his surplice; his faith necessitates a church so perfect it justifies the pain of the discipline it requires--and a world so cruel and impossible to improve that religion, by process of elimination, is all that's redemptive. As if to kill all feeling, Rivard hurls himself into unrewarding work, such as a treatise on Saint Augustine that in his heart he loathes; he even seems to thrive on Protestant hostility. Talking to himself to dispel the gloom, Rivard wants "no past, no future, just a very small present."
Into his brittle self-exile comes Sister Rita, a nun sent from Detroit to tend the parish school when two consumptive nuns fall ill. Young and very intense, the effortlessly beatific Rita, a kind of thinking nun's Sister Sourire or Maria von Trapp, is a hurricane of fresh air. Under her serene enthusiasm the school prospers; even the suspicious housekeeper, a Protestant convert to Catholicism named Mrs. Shandig, takes to her.
Rivard is cautious at first. He would prefer to retreat into his childhood conviction that he can only serve God once he stops crying (i.e., caring), whereas Rita acts on her opposite belief that "God isn't separate," that "the church is for rules but God is for people."
Outwardly they have no credo in common. But Rita is more than just optimism enshrined, and Rivard finds himself drawn to her. Though it means keeping secrets from his bishop, he allows Rita to move into the rectory--to Mrs. Shandig's horror. This initial subversion makes Rita and Rivard conspiratorially complicit whether or not they are guilty of any crime against the church. Further complicity is inevitable as Rivard guiltily watches Rita lie to conceal their intimacy. (Ironically, it's the persecution they fear that forces them together as much as any suppressed sexuality; appearances perversely create their own reality.) But, even while surrendering to one set of feelings, Rivard remains the prisoner of another. Because the two can't forget their vows, love and hate fight it out within and between them. Consummation seems only too predictable. Happily, the play doesn't stick to stereotypes.
What is a tad too dependable is Stitt's modernization of the characters circa 1976. No nun in 1911 would chirp like Rita does, "I am a person who is a nun, not a nun who used to be a person." Besides providing cheap sandwich-board character exposition, this retroactive feminism continually and anachronistically undermines Stitt's probing of the past. Stitt should know that this story matters in its own right, not just as a gloss on current events.
Fortunately, Michael Leavitt's staging works against the sloganeering, and, among other gold diggings, Lisa Bosco's Rita glows with an unforced ardor that's light-years from Pollyanna; sure, Rita loves life, but she's too authentic to start a chorus about her favorite things. In calculated contrast, Timothy Monsion at first seems to play Rivard's repression only too well, mumbling his way into what looks like impenetrable introspection. But Monsion, one of Chicago's acting assets, never lets the self-sacrifice stay cerebral; in the end it's as palpable and pointless as a severed artery. When Rivard posits that perfection means pain, all you really see is the latter.
Emoting eloquently over Michael Biddle's set of sharply intersecting wooden levels, the supporting cast produce some sterling efforts, particularly Karen Vaccaro as the almost too likable Mrs. Shandig (the housekeeper is, after all, the play's principal embodiment of the outside world's nasty-mindedness). John Sterchi is salt-of-the-earth simple and touchingly sincere as Rivard's bumbling lawyer; Peter Garino plays the much slicker prosecutor. Strong cameos come from Joan Deschamps as a tortured parishioner and Penny Berkman as a courtroom witness whose sublimated passion for Rivard results in some treacherous testimony (the resemblance to The Crucible is not to be ignored). As the pedantic tyrant Monsignor Nicholson, Robert Anderson is almost too stuffed a shirt, but then this character is even colder than his doctrine.
The Runner Stumbles represents a new direction for the Huron Theater; they apparently intend to abandon the less conventional fare of earlier efforts like Marie and Bruce and A History of the American Film for more actorly stuff like Runner and their next show, The Miracle Worker. Of course, their new course may prove irresistible, but I never hated the old one. I can't help thinking I hear the sound of a vacuum opening up.