Given the hysterical media outcry over child molestation in the Catholic Church, it's almost quaint to recall an era when the most shocking thing a parish priest could do was fall in love with a full-grown woman. As such, the passage of time may have leached some of the shock value out of Milan Stitt's 1975 drama, The Runner Stumbles, but there is still universal resonance to be found by exploring the inner turmoil of a man of profound faith rocked to his core by doubt and desire.
Father Rivard, a charismatic priest just a little too charismatic for his superiors' liking, is Siberia'd to a tiny Michigan hamlet where he's instructed to lay low, finish his religious treatise, and lead the community by example. Compounding his resentment at the assignment is the arrival of chirpy Sister Rita, a chip off the old Sound of Music, with new ideas for the convent and its school. By turns, her presence intrigues and irks Rivard, who reacts mainly with sour bullying. Still, when a contagious bug strikes the other nuns, he does the unthinkable - he allows Rita to move in with, chastely, him until the problem passes. Not only doesn't this sit well with his old-world housekeeper, it ends up becoming a secret he and Rita keep from the Monsignor, a sin of omission that weighs heavily on both of them.
With its mutual-attraction undercurrent and murder-mystery underpinning, The Runner Stumbles can veer precariously between sturm und drang and soap opera. Indeed, at the current Actors Company Theater revival, occasional giggles broke the somber mood once the facades of Rivard, Rita and especially the maid began unraveling. Truth be told, the solution of the mystery does have a penny-dreadful tinge, and the hot-house pain of the lead characters can come off as overwrought.
However, what remains potent in Stitt's play, besides his taking Rivard's crisis of faith deeply seriously, is its examination of how inflexibility, especially in the service of something as nebulous as religion, becomes a soul-deadening trap. Whether guilty or innocent of Rita's death, Rivard suffers for his rigidity - a pain that has less to do with Jesus-like suffering than self-inflicted torture.
Scott Alan Evans stages TACT's revival with intimacy and elicits a captivating performance from Ashley West. Sure, there's a dose of Von Trapp in her Sister Rita but also a dollop of Hester Prynne. Mark L. Montgomery doesn't stint on the intensity as Father Rivard, and his choleric spleen keeps us guessing to the end whether he'd be capable of a homicidal act. However, this approach also hurts the piece, one, because he's an unpleasant character to spend two-and-a-half hours with, and two, because we can't imagine him being the kind of gregarious, Mass Appeal-style pastor whose people skills would be a threat to church higher-ups. We are happy to spend time with Chris Hietikko's defense attorney and Julie Jesneck's neighbor, while Christina Bennett Lind offers an animated turn as a young lady with an unrequited axe to grind. They, and the material's craft and depth, help Runner go the distance.