Milan Stitt’s most extant play “The Runner Stumbles” began life as a project for his playwriting class while he was still in college in 1965. It took more than nine years in development before it was produced on Broadway, later, in 1979, becoming a film with Dick Van Dyke. The current production at the Bickford Theatre, directed by Eric Hafen, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, is dedicated to the memory of Rick Delaney, a brilliant member of the Bickford family, who passed away suddenly, just a few weeks ago.
George Winston’s evocative, and in this case ironic, piano piece “Thanksgiving” is what the show begins with. Sound designer Andy Elliott sets our mental stage with a musical work that gives us a feel of the chill, sere beauty of the Northern Michigan countryside, in 1911, where this play takes place. A lonely train whistle brings us into the action and we first meet Father Rivard (Rik Walter) in handcuffs. His jailer Amos (Shakur Tolliver) ushers in Toby Felker (JC Hoyt), who is his court-appointed public defender. Felker’s long experience consists mostly of property disputes and such, and it’s hard to say who is more anxious about the trial. Felker’s opponent, the Prosecutor (Christopher Reyes), is a young, trial-experienced attorney who’s got his eyes on a bigger prize in the capitol. This would be another rung in the Prosecutor’s ladder of success. Father Rivard stands accused of the murder of young Sister Rita (Lizzie Engelberth), a nun with whom, gossip has it, Father Rivard had a “special relationship” of the kind forbidden to Roman Catholic clergy to this day.
In our post-Modern world, where it seems like almost anything goes, it’s hard to remember that contact among the clerical was intentionally limited. The vows taken by nuns and priests, of poverty, chastity, and obedience, were enforced further by this limited contact. Father Rivard, as we learn, has been sent to guide this hitherto forsaken parish after it’s been without a priest for nearly 10 years. His Monsignor (Duncan M. Rogers) is punishing him for lack of obedience. The punishment is banishment away from the living center of the diocese, where the punishment is deepened by a writing project, a book that the Monsignor asks Rivard to write. There is only the pious and dour convert Mrs. Shandig (Liz Zazzi) for company for the Reverend Father and she has some very strong ideas of her own about what’s best for Rivard. When Sister Rita bursts on the scene like a breath of truly fresh air, no one in town is prepared for the changes she brings to Solon, Michigan.
We learn a lot about how some aspects of modern life were just as prevalent in 1911 as they are today. Louise (Ava Serene Portman) makes clear through her testimony that teenage girls were just as apt to fantasize about those around them, and to say what others might see, but not articulate, as they are today. Louise wheedles and flirts her way through the minefield of the adults’ interactions. The flip side is Erna Prindle (Kelley McAndrews), who was so worried, rightly so in that time, that she’d end up an old maid that she marries a man 30 years older and has a violent way of showing when he doesn’t agree with her choices.
This walk back in time shows that sepia-toned photographs and yellowed newspapers don’t always reflect the rose-colored stories that we hear on our grandparents’ knees. Crimes of passion happened then too, and newspaper headlines then, as now, didn’t always reflect the truth.
Make plans now to see “The Runner Stumbles” at the Bickford. The ending is a surprise and the run is only through February 14. Visit www.morrismuseum.org/main-stage-performances
and get your tickets today!