Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760
[The Runner Stumbles] seems at first to worry about the role of the church in relation to its parishioners and about the struggle between the two ways of approaching God that Charles Williams called the Ways of the Affirmation and the Negation of Images, but the doctrinal differences are revealed as a vehicle for suppressed sexuality…. The Runner Stumbles is about a tiny Catholic community, isolated from the alien and hostile Protestant town near which it is situated, the town itself cut off from the larger world by geography, weather, prejudice and platitudes. (p. 464)
The community consists, for dramatic purposes, of Father Rivard, Sister Rita and Mrs. Shandig, the priest's housekeeper. We do meet a couple of parishioners and a visiting cliché from the bishop's office, a fastidious bureaucrat of a monsignor, but the center of the play lies with the theological and sexual triangle of priest, nun and housekeeper. Father Rivard is something of a problem. He is purposely cold and distant, on the assumption that the priest is a figure set apart and that the church's job is to provide rules for conduct in a world in which only pain is to be expected. He is also kind and understanding beneath his rigidity, and he was exiled to this remote (I almost wrote "godforsaken") parish because he was an embarrassment to the diocese in his enthusiastic disregard for rules. This dichotomy is dramatically important since the first of the Father Rivards is to be tested by Sister Rita with the reluctant support of his hidden other self, but Stitt loads us with so much biographical material that the priest refuses to take shape. The runner who stumbles over Sister Rita is the boy who runs away from his own crippling compassion—in a childhood story he tells about diphtheria's wiping out most of his family—to escape into the austerity of withdrawal from human contact. When we learn about his lost love for the girl with sausage curls, about his difficulties with the diocesan conservatives, he comes across as a runner always stumbling, and the priest that Sister Rita faces has not enough validity, philosophically or personally, to provide a fit antagonist for the young nun.
Sister Rita, who arrives lilac in hand, is a toucher, physically and spiritually, a believer in God's beautiful world, a teacher of joy not pain. Sounding a bit 1960s for a nun in 1911, she considers herself a person first, a nun second…. By the end of the play, we see that Sister Rita is not really a humanizing influence in a church of rules, but that she is a nun by default, almost by accident, that she wants a home not the church, a family not a vocation, a particular not a generalized love. In the big scene, the one that we have been teasingly promised for so much of the play, Father Rivard declares his love and then withdraws it, and Sister Rita moves from the burble of expectation to the scream of frustration. In retrospect, so much that seemed charming about her early in the play becomes incipiently hysterical, and … Sister Rita emerges as a complete character, the central figure in a tragedy of an unfulfilled human being. In the process, however, what she stands for in the ideational play disappears, the human impulse in the house of rules becomes not an alternative approach to mission but a mask for sexual and social longing.
Confusion of purpose aside, the play [has] … some technical problems. The courtroom drama, skeleton of the play, is an excuse for the flashbacks, but it has no melodramatic tension in its own right; the mystery is solved in an off-hand way when the priest's lawyer remembers seeing lights up at the deserted rectory and hauls in the missing housekeeper for the obligatory witness-stand confession. The courtroom scenes, in their turn, break whatever emotional force the growing love between the principals might have been expected to produce as unacknowledged passion begins to fracture the characters' self-defined exteriors. Since the play is essentially conventional in form, it might better have dispensed with the shifting focus, a device which many plays … have shown to be more effective for didactic than for dramatic purposes. (pp. 464-65)
Serious, earnest, almost prim, The Runner Stumbles is an unusual play to find on Broadway these days, but it remains more an anomaly than an artistic or intellectual experience. (p. 465)
Gerald Weales, "Doing Sister In," in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Foundation), Vol. CIII, No. 15, July 16, 1976, pp. 464-65.