The Runner Stumbles

Milan Stitt's intense drama The Runner Stumbles gets an intense revival under the aegis of the estimable Actors Company Theatre. Stitt's play, which was produced on Broadway in 1976 and ran for nearly 400 performances, tells a weighty story that questions the strictures of the Catholic Church, the uses of religion, and the yearnings of the flesh. Based on a murder case in Michigan in the early 1900s, the play is framed as a courtroom drama in which a former priest is being tried for the murder of a young nun.

The defendant, Father Brian Rivard (Mark L. Montgomery), is a questioning, magnetic priest, irksome to his superiors, who finally dispatch him to a remote parish that has not seen a priest for nearly a decade. When Sister Rita (Ashley West), lively, youthful, and attractive, arrives to assist Rivard in the parish school, a mutual sexual attraction ignites. Under the watchful and disapproving eye of Rivard's dedicated housekeeper (Cynthia Darlow), the relationship deepens into torturous, forbidden, and unconsummated love, ending in tragedy.

The play's structure is complex, shifting from prison cell to courtroom to various places within the rectory and town. The fluid staging of director Scott Alan Evans, with an assist from Mary Louise Geiger's lighting, nicely defines the various locales within Dana Moran Williams' evocative unit set.

Still, as testimony and memory meld into multiple flashbacks, it sometimes seems as though we're hearing exposition within exposition within exposition. The nine-person cast brings deep emotionality to the production, but it sometimes blurs the storytelling. Story points get lost in overly quiet or excessively anguished moments.

As Rita, West appealingly combines spirituality with a buoyant humanity, and Montgomery makes the torment within Rivard convincing, though it's almost unrelenting and in danger of numbing an audience. Still to be achieved in the production are varied nuances of feeling that could render time shifts with greater clarity and pull onlookers more deeply into the multilayered story.

Presented by the Actors Company Theatre at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.., NYC. Nov. 4-24. Mon., Thu., and Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (Additional performance Tue., Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m. No performance Thu., Nov. 22.) (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.