'The Runner Stumbles' Lively nuns in conflict with a tradition-bound church have been a gold mine as dramatic subjects: ''Sound of Music,'' for example, and ''Agnes of God.'' Sister Rita in ''The Runner Stumbles'' joins this club, but unlike her predecessors, her rebellion gets her killed.
As a mystery about a 1911 trial of a priest accused of Sister Rita's murder, ''The Runner Stumbles'' (at the Alley Theatre) enthralls without telegraphing its startling, grisly climax. But ''whodunit'' is only one of the big questions in this play. It also probes such issues as ''Is God for rules or for people?''
The accused priest, handsome Fr. Rivard (Steve McConnell), chooses to serve a parishioner's need over church rules and gets sent to a small Michigan town to cool his heels. Enter radiant and energetic Sister Rita (Mary Woodhouse), who comes to teach at the school. She, too, is impatient with rules that stifle attempts to minister.
They fall in love, of course. Seeing the danger of her presence, he futilely attempts to squelch his feelings and stay away.
She, however, does not, and that is a flaw in the tale. It's hard to believe a nun in 1911 would be so ignorant of the protection behind some of the laws that she breaks so easily - covering his hand with hers when they eat dinner, speaking personally to him. And when they finally break down and confess their love, she's oblivious to the enormous impact this will have on their lives and those of the parishioners. She's otherwise obedient, and her rule-breaking is caused more by her eagerness for friendship than insubordination.
Even if this weakness causes the play to stumble, the production, directed by Elizabeth Appleby, runs a lean, tight race. Mr. McConnell does an excellent job as the tortured priest; and Miss Woodhouse, if a bit too modern, has a nice exuberance and directness. The rest of the acting is uneven, but fine performances are given by Gary Kirby as the hick lawyer, Pat Dougan as Erna, and Mary Klug as Mrs. Shandig. (Through April 21.)