Powerful local cast brings searing drama to life

The Runner Stumbles is a story of forbidden love, with a twist.

Set in 1911 and inspired by true events, the rollercoaster romance of Father Rivard (Brian Dowling) and Sister Rita (Elizabel Riggs) unfolds before the eyes of a small Michigan town, the looming Catholic church, and an enthusiastic Louisville audience.

We first meet Father Rivard behind bars, suspected of murdering a local nun. Over the next two hours, the small stage becomes a playground of his memory, leading us into the past where we meet Sister Rita. Because the parish’s other nuns are sick with tuberculosis, Sister Rita arrives to teach at the church school and becomes an unexpectedly bright light in Father Rivard’s gloomy existence. Due to the ailing nuns, Sister Rita is soon forced to move into the rectory with Father Rivard and his housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig (Julie Marino). Before long, the chemistry and tension between the two becomes nearly unbearable.

And then Sister Rita mysteriously dies.

A strong cast delivers

In its 100th production since 1990, Coal Creek Theater of Louisville welcomes The Runner Stumbles to the stage with a talented cast of local actors. Masterfully directed by Dan Schock and led by the outstanding performances of Dowling  as Father Rivard and Riggs as Sister Rita, the play moves beyond a typical performance of tortured love and into a drama with real emotional intensity.

Dowling easily delivers numerous monologues and looks to simple hand gestures to express his thoughts. Riggs stands out for her earnest, yet nuanced depiction of Sister Rita, where her superb control of facial expressions guides us through the play’s joy and inevitable despair. And Julie Marino wows in her role as Mrs. Shandig, the housekeeper, where she adds complexity to the type of character that can often lack dimension.

Despite some pretty heavy themes, he show is not without its comedic moments. Louis Clark keeps the audience laughing with his amusing portrayal of Toby Felker, the affable and inexperienced town lawyer assigned to Father Rivard’s case. In a show that explores complex themes like love, religion, and death, this humor provides a welcome balance.

Coal Creek Theater, where a small set works hard

In my recent forays into Colorado’s local theatre scene, I have been continually impressed with the sets created in very small spaces.

The set for The Runner Stumbles is no exception.

Given the time-traveling nature of this production and the limited space in the theatre, set designers H.L. Smith and Kirsten Jorgensen Smith opted for minimal design with props (by Peg Bolan and Sue Peterson) that perform double duty. The left side of the stage is partially marked by short metal bars — connoting a prison when necessary but not getting in the way when the scene calls for something else.

The rest of the stage is minimally filled with a desk, a table, a witness stand — items that lead us into the past and fluidly draw us back to the present. A ramp extends up the stage, adding the illusion of space to the story while a small garden below creates a sense of the outdoors.

This efficient set works in tandem with Shane Forman’s strategic light design, coming from exposed stage lighting in either corner of the room. It makes me question the need for fancy overhead light rigs when this simple lighting, executed by Steve Rausch, so effectively captures the tone and time-shifting nature of this mysterious tragedy.

To do all of this in a notably small room is remarkable, reflecting the expertise of Coal Creek Theater’s production crew and their skill in bringing the austere environment of The Runner Stumbles to life.

If you like romance but are partial to mystery and a bit of philosophical musing, this might be the show for you. Run, don’t stumble, to see this moving production before it ends on March 14.