THE RUNNER STUMBLES
The Beckett Theatre
Review by John Delamar
It's been more than three decades since the Milan Stitt drama, The Runner Stumbles, has been seen on Broadway, even on a professional New York Stage, but thanks to our dear friends at The Actor's Company Theatre, dedicated to reviving lesser known theatre works, we now have the opportunity to see this amazing play, again.
A priest lusts after a fellow sister of the collar, can that original sin make him attempt the greatest sin of all, murder?
It's intrigue from the get go with Milan Stitt and The Runner Stumbles, and a show like this one is still relevant in our modern day, which is a nice change from dated theatre works that seem to roll along endlessly, pondering the meanings of meaningless lives.
Stitt’s script rolls along, but at a snowball’s pace, catching snippets of the past and the future and rolling them together. The audience is guessing and re-guessing themselves through out the tightly written dialogue. Stitt has created believable characters, based on real life events, that you want to feel for and want to believe, despite their faults. What The Runner Stumbles really is is a courtroom drama, laced with themes that reach far beyond the basic good and evil, cloth or secular, and into the darker realms of the primal and the civilized. If you didn’t know the show was about a priest and a nun, it wouldn’t matter. The story’s staying power is in it’s universal truths. It is elementally a show about why we do and believe the things we do, and how those views can be altered when they’re questioned.
TACT has brought together an amazing cast for this, their first production of their second season in residence at Theatre Row. Veteran of the Broadway stage, Cynthis Darlow, brings to life the house keeper of the centrally figured priest, Fr Rivard, in a way that makes her seem not a charater, but someone’s dotting grandmother. Darlow draws us, convincing us long the way, that her Mrs Shandig is the real stuff, she may be meak and quiet, but she has things to say, important things. It’s Ms Darlow’s performance that gives credit to Shandig’s rantings religiously zealous rantings. I smell a Obie nomination in the wind for Ms. Darlow.
Mark C Montgomery leaps effortlessly from despair to joy to disappointment, as Fr Rivard, the reviled and defrocked priest on trial for the murder of Sister Rita. His performance, very much like the play itself, starts off methodically, making you question the tension and excitement level of the production, but as Montgomery goes and goes the steam builds and he barrels along like a locomotive towards the shows climactic finale. It’s Montgomery’s understanding of the little nuances of a good small town priest that allows you to buy into the character. The smallest gesture or the way he speaks of his protestant brethren, remind me of what it was like growing up in a small catholic church, making it more difficult to believe that a priest would be capable of the crime of murder. But, understanding the constraints and his actions all the better.
Buoyant, lively, naive are all buzzwords that could describe the performance by Ashley West of the third corner of this bizarre religious love triangle. None of these fits. From the moment West walks on stage, bathed in a solo light, speaking with growing warmth and enthusiasm for her reassignment to Fr Rivard’s parish, she is absolutely enrapturing. The beauty of the performance put out by Ms West is that she holds true, as Sister Rita would, being the enthusiastic young sprite, all the way. he warm attitude never falters, even in her deepest despairs Ms West’s eyes sparkle with Sister Rita’s vitality. She is light with the cut of a sinner’s edge, allowing her revolutionary beliefs to make sense to a secular audience.
With all of the wonderful things going on in this play one has to wonder why it’s taken so long for for a show as entertaining and thought provoking as The Runner Stumbles to make a revival. Praise to TACT for being wise enough to see that it’s return would be fortuitous.
In the cracker jack box of live theatre, The Runner Stumbles is the prize at the bottom, you get after wading through all the sweet gooey stuff.