Wednesday, November 09, 2011

THEATER: The Runner Stumbles

Photo/Kristen Vaughan
The Runner Stumbles, written in 1974 (and on Broadway in 1976), may be based on the true story of the murder of Sister Mary Janina back in the early 1900s (the play is set in Michigan, 1911), but it has not aged well. Milan Stitt's script, written in a populist and preachy style, uses the framework of a murder trial to hook the audience, and the testimony of witnesses and interviews between the inexperienced defense, Toby (Ric Sechrest), and his muted client, the former priest Rivard (Christopher Patrick Mullen), to provide flashbacks. It's a rather onerous way of getting to the good stuff: the emotionally fraught and potentially murderous relationship between the forward-thinking Rivard and the outspoken and unconventional Sister Rita (Casandera M. J. Lollar). Fatigably directed by Peter Zinn, it's a stumble that the play never fully recovers from.

Ideally, the tight compression of the six months that lead to the sister scandalously living under the same roof as Rivard (the fellow nuns come down with consumption), are meant to speed by so rapidly that we think nothing of the eroding "propriety," save for a few concerns voiced by Rivard's housekeeper, the converted and penitent Mrs. Shandig (Heather E. Cunningham). Instead, the scenes contemplatively crawl, with idle pauses and overly-reasoned dialogues drained of all passion. With the exception of the climax, even the more argumentative scenes feel scaled back. (This may be due in part to the awkward L-shaped seating of the Richmond Shepard space, or the acoustics that occasionally make the more whisper-y actors inaudible.) Of note, the Act I finale, in which Rivard cuts himself to prove that he does bleed, goes from an abrupt and shocking act to a deliberate and precise cut. The script suggests that Rivard smear blood on Sister Rita; the actual staging, like most of the show, is relatively bloodless.

This awkwardness extends to the courtroom scenes. Nat Cassidy, as the Prosecutor, attempts to build up some steam in his interrogations: an impossible task, for his scenes are always cut off. (The show suffers from a marked lack of momentum.) The low budget and frustrating lighting don't help either, in that shifts between past and present require scenic adjustments, and one's eye is all too frequently drawn to witnesses who are frozen in place as the scene attempts to "shift." The script facilitates some transitions better than others, like that of Louise (Becky Byers), a Crucible-like child who takes the stand to get even; others, like Rivard's rival, the Monsignor Nicholson (Jim Boerlin), are in the background so long they practically qualify as sets.

At its repetitious heart -- Stitt has a habit of recycling lines for "emphasis" -- the scenes between Rivard and Rita are quite good. Mullen in particular grows into the role, alternating as he does between the different sorts of strength -- personal and religious -- that have brought him so much trouble, and which have so confused the impressionable Rita. He's fortunate, too, to be paired against Lollar, who makes him work harder; his confrontations in the courthouse are far feebler (and less rehearsed with the fight choreographer).

Retro Productions has made a name for themselves focusing on revivals; hopefully this, their sixth-season premiere, is but a stumble.

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