Mr. Stitt was unknown in 1974 when his play The Runner Stumbles was put in the hands of actor and director Austin Pendleton by a mutual friend, Joe Mathewson. The plot was based on real events that had happened in 1911 in Mr. Stitt's native Michigan, in which a priest was put on trial for murdering a nun.
Pendleton begrudgingly read it, but soon found himself drawn in. "Once I got past the first few pages, I really got into it. It was awkward and crude — not only in the writing but in the structure. The writing was very head-on, without a trace of irony at all; it was blunt."
Pendleton took the play to Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the then-young Off-Broadway company Manhattan Theatre Club, who liked it. Mr. Stitt, who once contemplated becoming a priest, sweated over several new drafts and the play opened in December 1974.
Reviews were encouraging and the run proved popular with audiences. Two audience members, Del and Margo Tenny, were in the middle of starting their own theatre company in Stamford, CT, and they decided to put The Runner Stumbles in their first season. The production was a huge hit for the Hartman Theatre, as it was called, and a producer named Wayne Adams decided to take a chance and bring it to Broadway. It opened at the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) on May 18, 1976. Reviews were more mixed this time, but the play ran for six months.
A 1979 film version adapted by Mr. Stitt was directed by Stanley Kramer and starred Dick Van Dyke, Kathleen Quinlan, Beau Bridges, Ray Bolger and Tammy Grimes. Mr. Stitt's other plays included Back in the Race and Labor Day, which he wrote and directed for Christopher Reeve. Both were at Circle Rep, the influential Off-Broadway theatre company of which Mr. Stitt was a member. At Circle Rep, he created the play development program, and it was as its director that he had his biggest impact in the theatre, serving as a dramaturg to such Circle Rep writers as Bill C. Davis, Albert Innaurato, Arthur Kopit, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson and Paul Zindel. For two years, he also served as executive director of Circle Repertory Company.
Milan Stitt was born Feb. 9, 1941, in Detroit, MI. He studied at Albion College to become a priest before receiving his BA from the University of Michigan and MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
Fair-haired, bearded and professorial-looking, Mr. Stitt served in academia for much of his career. He was chairman of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama for four years. He also taught dramatic writing at Princeton University, University of Michigan and at New York University. He was awarded a university chair and was the Raymond W. Smith Professor of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Runner Stumbles was revived in fall 2007 by Off-Broadway's TACT/The Actors Company Theatre.