Faith and Passion Collide in The Runner Stumbles, Getting First Major NYC Revival

News   Faith and Passion Collide in The Runner Stumbles, Getting First Major NYC Revival Following previews that began Oct. 28, The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) opens Milan Stitt's church scandal drama, The Runner Stumbles, Nov. 4 at Off-Broadway's Beckett Theatre.

The play hasn't been produced in New York City since its Broadway debut in 1976. The Off-Broadway company has scheduled a series of post-show discussions during the run (to Nov. 24), including a chat with playwright Stitt, who based his play on the true story of the murder of a young Catholic nun, Sister Mary Janina, who went missing from a convent-school in rural Michigan in 1906.

A massive search, lead by the church's priest, Father Bieniawski, and the local police department yielded no results.

After a decade, the young nun's bones were found buried in the rectory of the church. A trial began in 1919, in which a church cover-up of the murder was revealed, as well as a conviction in the bludgeoning death of Sister Mary.

Stitt's drama underwent numerous adaptations until settling on a final version, which was produced on Broadway under the direction of Austin Pendleton in 1976. Stitt changed the names of his central characters to Sister Rita and Father Rivard; critics were captivated by the true-crime angle of the "who-dunnit."

TACT co-artistic director Scott Alan Evans directs a cast that includes Mark L. Montgomery as Father Rivard and Ashley West as Sister Rita with Cynthia Darlow, Chris Hietikko, James Murtaugh, Julie Jesneck, Jamie Bennett, Christopher Halladay and Christina Bennett Lind. *

Director Evans told Playbill.com, "We were attracted to The Runner Stumbles on several fronts: First, we felt the central issue of the nature of faith is very potent at the moment — there seems to be a lot of questioning and examination of its role in society, politics and culture right now. How this play examines faith in relationship to organized religion (in this case the Catholic Church) and one's personal needs is particularly striking. God versus The Church. Ultimately, the play is saying that following a rigid doctrine blindly can lead to tragedy — inadvertent in this case — and that a spirituality that embraces forgiveness and love (one that comes from a deep inner examination) is the most powerful and sustaining. Clearly now, with the continued rise of the Christian right and the role it is playing in politics makes these issues timely."

He added, "Second, viewing the play, which was produced on Broadway in 1976, from our vantage point, the church sex scandals of recent years clearly have resonance. Although, there is no sex whatsoever in this play (perhaps not a selling point today), it does obliquely explore how that kind of behavior might happen."

Evans said the play dovetails with TACT's mission. "It's an ensemble piece, and its storytelling style fits our aesthetic perfectly — creating theatre out of little more than the text and the actor's craft," Evans explained.

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The design team for The Runner Stumbles includes lighting by Mary Louise Geiger, costumes by David Toser, sound by Daryl Bornstein, sets by Dana Moran Williams and original music by Joseph Trapanese.

The Runner Stumbles plays at the Beckett Theatre, located on Theatre Row at 410 W. 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Performances play Monday, Thursday, Friday at 7:30 PM, Saturday at 2 & 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, plus Tuesday Nov. 20 at 7:30 PM; no performance on Nov. 22.

Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200 or by visiting www.tactnyc.org.

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The following post-show chats are free with the purchase of a ticket:

  • LOVE AND THE CHURCH
    Former priest and Milwaukee talk-show host, Jack Murtaugh, shares insights on faith, love and marriage as he recounts the events that led up to his decision to leave the church and marry his wife — a former nun. (Following the 7:30 PM Nov. 5 performance.)
  • CRISIS OF FAITH – AN INTERFAITH DIALOGUE
    The Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of New York along with Rabbi Matthew D. Gerwitz and other prominent New York religious leaders discuss themes from the play including an individual's struggle with faith in the face of conflicting emotional needs and changing times. (Following the 7:30 PM Nov. 8 performance.)
  • THE RUNNER STUMBLES ,THE PLAYWRIGHT SPEAKS
    Playwright Milan Stitt discusses the genesis of his play and the real-life Michigan murder that inspired it. (Following the 8 PM Nov. 10 performance.) Stitt was born in Detroit and received his BA from the University of Michigan and MFA from the Yale School of Drama. As a writer, Stitt is best known for his play, The Runner Stumbles, named best Broadway Play of 1976 in the annual Best Plays book. The film version of his screenplay was directed by Stanley Kramer with Dick Van Dyke, Kathleen Quinlan, Beau Bridges, Ray Bolger and Tammy Grimes. A long-time member of the Circle Repertory Company, his plays produced there include, The Runner Stumbles with William Hurt, Back in the Race and Labor Day, which he wrote and directed for Christopher Reeve. Among his recent productions is Places We've Lived for the Pittsburgh New Plays Festival in June 2005. His libretto, co-written with choreographer Terrence Orr, for The Nutcracker continues in repertory at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

  • Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Shandig, Ashley West as Sister Rita and Mark L. Montgomery as Father Rivard in <i>The Runner Stumbles</i>.
    Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Shandig, Ashley West as Sister Rita and Mark L. Montgomery as Father Rivard in The Runner Stumbles. Photo by Jennifer Maufrais