By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Religion is onstage everywhere lately: New Jerusalem by David Ives at Lantern, Angels in America by Tony Kushner at the Wilma, A Bright New Boise by Sam Hunter at Simpatico, Grace by Craig Wright in New York, and opening soon, the new musical, Stars of David, based on Abigail Pogrobin’s book at Philadelphia Theatre Company.
And all this just since the season started last month.
Add to this list Curio Theatre’s The Runner Stumbles by Milan Stitt, a drama about a catastrophic love affair between a priest (Steve Carpenter), and a nun (Isa St. Clair). It is being performed in a cavernous old church--the wretched acoustics does the production no favors since every third word is unintelligible-- but it sure does add realistically to the atmosphere.
More realism: Based on historic events in remote northern Michigan in 1911 when a murdered nun’s body was discovered, Stitt’s play reveals the dangers and terrible cost of the Roman Catholic church’s insistence on celibacy. It is telling that our first glimpse of Father Rivard as he is brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, is not shocking; recent newsreels have shown us plenty of shackled priests.
More realism: my companion for the evening had spent some time training for the priesthood. He assured me that the situations and the dialogue were entirely accurate and believable, although the plot struck me as trite and, except for its surprising conclusion, entirely predictable.
The action alternates between the murder trial and the priest’s memories. At the trial there are all the stock characters, including a surly prison guard, an inept hick lawyer, a repulsive prosecutor, and a self-important schoolgirl. In the scenes of the past, we see the central personalities develop: the priest is desperately lonely and, therefore, rigid as he struggles to preserve the Church’s laws, in contrast to lovely Sister Rita who needs conversation and flowers. The maid (Aetna Gallagher) is an almost constant chaperoning presence.
Lost in the welter of muffled words and the lack of lighting clues any production should give an audience, there are two crucial facts: an epidemic of tuberculosis in the convent and an even more mystifying fire.
The actors are earnest and capable, but lack professional polish and the ability to project their voices in this unfriendly venue. The direction by Gay Carducci is often awkward as she attempts to cope with the unyielding space. This runner stumbles in a variety of ways.