Before there was Doubt, there was a tradition of theater works about priests whose faith is either tested or is already as weak as an oak leaf on a November bough. One of the most esteemed is Milan Stitt’s 1976 play The Runner Stumbles, which TACT is giving a respectable revival under Scott Alan Evans’ direction at The Beckett Theatre.
In order to register his profoundly dubious attitude towards religion, Stitt based his breast-beating drama on the actual early 19th-century case of a nun who’ disappeared and was suspected to have been murdered by a priest. In his damning version of the facts at his disposal, Father Rivard (an intensely quivering Mark L. Montgomery) and Sister Rita (a fresh-faced, sincere Ashley West) have been brought into close company at a rural Michigan convent school — as were the actual people involved. The proximity isn’t beneficial for them.
As Stitt imagines might have happened to the real-life nun — whose remains were unearthed in the church rectory after many years — Sister Rita becomes more than respectful of Father Rivard. He seems to feel the same way about a nun whose every instinct is true in regards to the children she supervises. Then again, feelings are something Father Rivard has ceaselessly fought in order to fulfill his ecclesiastical duties as he perceives them. Indeed, his denial inclinations are so ingrained he won’t own up to the smallest things — such as his despising of an egg nog foisted on him by rectory cook, Mrs. Shandig (Cynthia Darlow, nicely employing a thick accent), a fervent convert to Catholicism who is around to watch what’s transpiring between priest and nun.
So is Monsignor Nicholson (an unforgivingly stern James Murtaugh), who’s Father Rivard’s emissary from the archbishop. Keeping Monsignor Nicholson satisfied while allowing Sister Rita to break religion rules and live under the same roof with him is the impetus for the debilitating problems accruing to Father Rivard as he fights his natural desires.
Stitt tells his sorrowful tale through flashbacks occurring while Father Rivard is counseled by his neophyte defender, Toby Felker (Chris Hietikko). These scenes unfold either in his cell or in a courtroom where a slick prosecutor (Jamie Bennett) is on the attack. And here’s where the mystery about Sister Rita’s death is mooted, the circumstantial evidence is presented and argued — and where, in particular, Father Rivard’s innocence or guilt is under close examination.
With probing playwright’s skill, Stitt suggests plenty about who — or what — is innocent or guilty in the good-hearted nun’s death. Long before he reveals whether it was Father Rivard who fatally bludgeoned Sister Rita, he’s accumulated a different kind of evidence never stressed in court. He sedulously posits that while clinging tenaciously to his Catholic faith, Father Rivard had begun slowly to stifle Sister Rita’s not quite indomitable spirit. In a narrative probably a smidgeon too thickly fraught for its own good, Stitt trumpets that Father Rivard had already done much to undermine the unfortunate nun’s physical and psychological well-being.
Stitt is using Father Rivard to represent Catholicism, and saying in few uncertain terms that religious “order” and “discipline” is the enemy of life. Furthermore, Father Rivard is not alone among the men dominating women in the play. In Stitt’s view, the church and even the courtroom hierarchy — ruled, as they are, by men — overrun women. “Nuns expect to be lonely” is one way the attitude is expressed mildly. To that extent, the practice of Catholicism becomes a metaphor for men’s suppression of women. At a time when the horrors religions cause in their blind zeal confounds us daily, The Runner Stumbles continues to be an effectively theatrical demonstration.