The Runner Stumbles, now onstage at the Arclight Theater, is an emotionally intense, neo-gothic tale of a missing nun in the early 1910s in Michigan. It is based on true events, which give poignancy to the proceedings.
The action starts with the arrest and trial preparation of Father Rivard, a riveting turn by Christopher Patrick Mullen. Father Rivard is being charged with the murder of Sister Rita, a missing nun. The story then unfolds as a series of recollections as he tells his story to his lawyer, and as the trial progresses.
Sister Rita is a young nun, sent to the church to help with the school that Father Rivard has built. She shares the convent with two other (unseen) nuns. Her youth and new ideas challenge the Father and order of things, upsetting the housekeeper and the other nuns, as well as Father Rivard. Before too long, the other nuns suffer from consumption, and Sister Rita has to move into the rectory. This raises the suspicions and gossip in the town and with the clerical hierarchy. When Sister Rita goes missing, the same night as Father Rivard leaves town, suspicion turns to accusations and a trial takes place.
The Runner Stumbles is a very serious play; there are few moments of laughter, but the overall tone is fairly bleak. We understand Father Rivard has been sent to this remote parish for being too impassioned about his duties, which is a trait that Sister Rita shares. Unfortunately, for the majority of the show, his animation is too far under control. Father Rivard is obviously attracted to Sister Rita, and the attraction makes him question his faith and judgment. His attraction also makes him rather angry with himself, and he takes it out on everyone around him.
Mr. Mullen has a tough character to bring to life. Father Rivard spends nearly the entire show in turmoil that erupts occasionally; this can be off-putting in a character. Mr. Mullen has to vary a performance that is written at the edge of control. Casandera M.J. Lollar plays Sister Rita, a role with a much greater range of emotions. Sister Rita’s shortcoming is that she was raised in a convent and doesn’t understand men’s emotions. Father Rivard is a mystery to her, although not to the audience. Ms. Lollar brings Sister Rita life, a young woman ahead of her time.
Heather E. Cunningham plays housekeeper Mrs. Shandig. Mrs. Shandig is a convert to Catholicism who runs the Rectory and Convent. As innocent as Sister Rita is, she is well aware of men’s more base natures. She tries to protect both Sister Rita and Father Rivard from their emotions. Ms. Cunningham is excellent – as are the other supporting players.
The quality of this production is excellent (Set Deisgners Jack & Rebecca Cunningham, Lighting Designer Jacqueline Reid), and makes great use of the Arclight space. Peter Zinn handles the Direction ably, in this tightly strung drama. The one issue with The Runner Stumbles is the play starts at a high level of angst, and stays there throughout the show. The show in general, and the character of Father Rivard in particular, would benefit from a variation in tone. All the characters are able to sustain the level of dread, but the audience could do with more variety. Luckily for all involved, the payoff for the audience is great,The Runner Stumbles is a very good show.
The Runner Stumbles at the Arclight Theater
Playwright: Milan Stitt
Director: Peter Zinn
Cast: Christopher Patrick Mullen, Casandera M.J. Lollar, Heather E. Cunningham, Alisha Spielmann, Ric Sechrest, Joseph Mathers, Nat Cassiday, Richard Waddingham, Becky Byers
Website (Retro Productions)