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Facing Impossible Decisions: Drury Theatre's Production of 'The Runner Stumbles'

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(Dramatist's Play Service, Inc.)
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A play inspired by actual events early in the 20th century is currently being produced by Drury University  Theatre.  Milan Stitt's 1971 drama The Runner Stumbles continues Friday and Saturday March 3rd and 4th in the Studio Theatre inside Drury's Springfield Hall.

The Runner Stumbles is "not a well-known play," admits Drury University Professor of Theatre Dr. Robert Schraft, though it was made into a motion picture in 1979 by director Stanley Kramer. "It was inspired by an actual event in 1910 in northern Michigan.  A local priest was accused of murdering a nun, whom they believed he had gotten pregnant.  It was later proven that he couldn't possibly have killed her, he was out on the lake fishing at the time of her death."

What interested playwright Milan Stitt, says Dr. Schraft, "was the conflict of, what if a priest and a nun fell in love? So you've got vows that you absolutely can't break, but you've got human emotions that you absolutely can't resist."

Two Drury University seniors play the leads: Joel Roney is Father Rivard, adn Kelsey Pressnall is Sister Rita, who we see exclusively in flashbacks, as the curtain rises after her murder is discovered.  "The story is told through the court trial and interviews, and then flashbacks to the events," according to Dr. Schraft.

Joel Roney, in preparing the role of Father Rivard, says that one of the most interesting aspects of both Rivard and the early 20th-century time period "has been how Catholicism was viewed by a lot of the people, especially in more rural areas like where the play is set.  The two things that I first do when trying to get into a character--and with Rivard in particular--I try to identify what it is that the character really wants and cares about, and what stops them from getting that. And that works really well with this show in particular, because it's a play about impossible longing. It's a play about a man who has a desire for a person"--a desire he's not allowed to have due to his religious calling. 

And her religious calling too, for that matter. Kelsey Pressnall describes Sister Rita as someone needing "some kind of structure" in her life that involves love and nurturing "because she didn't get that as a child.  And so the Church provided that for her.  That's part of the reason why she decided to become a nun.  She also has a great deal of faith.  But she's also a little bit more progressive than Father Rivard has become in his seclusion at this small parish.  And so she introduces ideas to him that he's since forgotten."

Pressnall says the cast has had a lot of discussion about the levels of commitment to the Church required of priests and nuns in those pre-Vatican Two days: a nun could leave the convent without having to leave the church.  However, says Roney, if a priest left the priesthood circa 1910, "I'm essentially saying that I'm no longer a Catholic when I leave the priesthood." "So we have different stakes," adds Pressnall.

Dr. Schraft feels Stitt's play "is about the basic human conflict of when you face impossible decisions. I don't think it's a play about Catholicism. I don't even think it's a mystery about 'who killed Sister Rita.' It is really about the internal conflict between these two (Rivard and Rita)." It's about those situations, he adds, "when you can't make a decision--there's no good way to do this. And that's human nature. And I thnk it's also a very compellingly written story--that we care about both of them."

Three final performances remain for The Runner Stumbles in Springfield Hall's Studio Theatre on the Drury University campus: Friday March 4th at 7:30pm, and two shows Saturday the 5th, at 2:00 and 7:30pm.  The Drury box office is open from 1-5pm at 873-7255; tickets will also be available at the door an hour before curtain time.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning "Arts News." Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's "Ozzie Award" in 2006.