'The Runner Stumbles' explores the dangers of priestly celibacy

Isa St. Clair stars as the murdered nun and Aetna Gallagher as the maid who serves as chaperone in the Curio Theatre production. REBECCA MIGLIONICO
Isa St. Clair stars as the murdered nun and Aetna Gallagher as the maid who serves as chaperone in the Curio Theatre production. REBECCA MIGLIONICO
Posted: October 22, 2012

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 Samuel Hunter at Simpatico; Grace by Craig Wright in New York; and opening soon, Philadelphia Theatre Company's Stars of David, a musical based on Abigail Pogrebin's book.

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 that adds realism to the atmosphere, though the wretched acoustics do the production no favors, as every third word is unintelligible.

More realism: Based on events in 1911 in remote northern Michigan, where the body of a murdered nun was discovered, Stitt's play explores 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 TV reports 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 the situations and dialogue were entirely 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. The courtroom scenes give us stock characters, including a surly prison guard, an inept hick lawyer, a repulsive prosecutor, and a self-important schoolgirl in the witness box. In the flashbacks, 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.

Two facts are lost in the welter of muffled words and the lack of lighting clues: an epidemic of tuberculosis in the convent and a mystifying fire.

The Runner Stumbles features earnest, capable actors, but they lack professional polish and the ability to project their voices in this unfriendly venue. The direction by Gay Carducci is often awkward as she copes with the unyielding space. This runner, sadly, stumbles.


The Runner Stumbles

Presented by Curio Theatre Company at the Calvary Center, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Through Nov. 10. Tickets: $15-20. Information: 215-525-1350

or www.curiotheatre.org.

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