Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: 'The Runner Stumbles' superior thriller with top notch cast at the Bickford

One of the best plays on Broadway in 1976 was the thriller, The Runner Stumbles directed by the noted actor/director Austin Pendleton. Three years later it was made into a major film starring Dick Van Dyke, Kathleen Quinlan, Maureen Stapleton, Tammy Grimes, Beau Bridges, and Ray Bolger. Today, an absolutely first rate staging of this religious themed murder mystery is on view at the Bickford theatre in Morristown.

The play is set in a small Catholic parish located in the desolate area of northern peninsula, Michigan, circa 1911. The former parish priest is on trial for the suspected murder of a young nun ​who died a decade earlier under mysterious circumstances. The jury members, the judge and most of the small town citizens are, unfortunately for the priest, of the 'fire and brimstone' variety of Christians fundamentalists. They share a common fear of anything unnatural or unexplained, such as religion, particularly Catholicism. Note that The Runner Stumbles does not share the theme (child sexual abuse by priests) of the current Oscar nominated movie Spotlight and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. The play dramatically covers the forbidden love that develops between the priest and the nun and his agonizing struggle with his faith and passion. 

Lizzie Engelberth - Rik Walter (Photo Warren Westura)
This story of love and religion, surprisingly relevant today, is impressively presented by director Eric Hafen, Bickford's artistic director. It is the outstanding lead actors that Hafen has so perfectly cast that take a good play to a truly rewarding theatre experience. The star is the priest (Rev. Brian Rivard) played by a remarkable actor with impressive stage and television credits, Rik Walter. Walter perfectly projects the torment Rivard faces.

The young Nun (Sister Rita) is played convincingly by a newcomer to the Bickford stage, Lizzie Engelberth. She is a recent graduate of Drew University Master's program and has trained at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Engelberth should have a bright future in theater. The three other leads are each highly acclaimed veterans of stages on both sides of the river. In fact, each are past 'best actor' winners in our annual New Jersey Footlight Awards. First, is Liz Zazzi, a delight who excels in everything from comedy to drama. She nails the part of Father Rivard's exceptionally caring housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig. 

Second is, one the best character actors on anyone's stage, J.C. Hoyt (right). Hoyt is spot-on as the inexperienced (in criminal cases) lawyer for Rivard, Toby Felker. His bit-of-a bumbler, good ol' boy character nicely balances the others. 

Third, a particular favorite at the Bickford and NJ Rep, is the highly talented Duncan M. Rogers (left). Rogers projects perfectly the stern, unforgiving, by the book Monsignor Nicholson.

The secondary roles are also nicely cast: Kelley McAndrews (Erna Prindle), and three ​Drew University students- Shakur Tolliver (Amos), Christopher Reyes (Prosecutor) and Ava Serne Portman (Louise). ​Drew University is a co-producer with the Bickford of the play.

L-R: Rik Walter, J.C. Hoyt, Christopher Reyes, Kelley McAndrews, Shakur Tolliver

A note about the author and the source of the story per director Hafen's program comments: "Playwright Milan Stitt began his journey called The Runner Stumbles during his second year of the MFA program at Yale. His assignment was to write an outline for a full length play. As he struggled for an idea, his wife told him a story she had heard as a child in Traverse City, Michigan. In the small town of Isadore just a few miles from Traverse City, a nun had gone missing. Ten years later, her bones were found buried underneath the rectory. A trial began, the murderer was found and a church cover-up was revealed. Stitt loved his wife's idea and began working on the play in 1955. He had no idea that this little school assignment would become his most famous work, nor did he guess that it would occupy the next eleven years of his life. On May 18th, 1976, The Runner Stumbles opened on Broadway....and was listed as one of the Best Plays of 1976."

Director Eric Hafen's creative team:

Set Designer: James Bazewicz
Lighting Designer: Roman Klima
Costume Designer: Angela Rouse
Properties Designer: Danielle Pietrowski
Sound Designer: Andrew Elliott
Make-Up Artist: Christopher Burns
Assistant Stage Manager: Michal Kortsarts
Production Stage Manager: Yumi Matsuura

The thriller is presented in two acts, the first is 75 minutes, the second act 50 minutes. The play is running twelve times at the Bickford Theatre from this past January 28 to February 14, 2016.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  Jan. 31, 2016

​Remaining ​Performances

Thursday, Feb. 4 at 7:30PM; Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2PM
Friday, Feb. 5 & 12 at 8PM
Saturday, Feb. 6 & 13 at 8PM
Sunday, Feb. 7 & 14 at 2PM
Audio described performance available on Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2PM


$45 General Public; $40 Seniors, Museum & Theatre Guild Members; $33 Groups (10+); $20 Students (under 18 or w/valid college ID).

Tickets may be purchased online at morrismuseum.org, by phone at (973) 971-3706, or in person at the Bickford Theatre Box Office. The Bickford Theatre is an integral part of the Morris Museum, located at 6 Normandy Heights Road in Morristown, NJ, and offers free parking and full accessibility. Box Office hours for phone sales are Monday through Friday, 10:00am to 5:00pm. Walk-up hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11:00am to 5:00pm.

All photos by Warren Westura

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