"I'm into events too — war, famine, genocide," quips Sarah, the protagonist in GableStage's compelling production of Time Stands Still. It's a funny line that reveals something profound about both journalists and battle. Sarah is a photographer whose lust for chronicling atrocity threatens to ruin her life.
The play is ostensibly a study in the impassive cruelty of war told through the eyes of a couple drifting toward an uncertain future while fighting to avoid destruction by unspeakable experiences. It's a crisp production sustained by some fine performances and a script that moves along with the right measure of humor and drama.
The play was written by Donald Margulies, who is a professor of English and theater at Yale. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for his play Dinner With Friends. War is the backdrop for Time Stands Still, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2009 and opened at GableStage this past weekend. It's a stark tale of love and conflict.
Time Stands Still
By Donald Margulies. Directed by Joseph Adler. Through June 3 at GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-446-1116. Tickets cost $50 general, $47.50 for seniors and students.
Photojournalist Sarah (Deborah Sherman) has returned to Brooklyn from a freelance job in Iraq after being seriously injured by a roadside bomb. Her boyfriend James (Steve Garland), a freelance foreign correspondent, had left her in Baghdad after suffering through an incident of his own.
"This play appealed to me because of the subject matter — the idea of responsibility on the part of journalists and what role they play," director Joseph Adler says. "And I think it's never been more true than now, with this constant 24-hour news cycle we live in."
The opening scene shows Sarah, limping into her Manhattan loft and leaning against a crutch, with a leg in a brace, an arm in a sling, and the right side of her face scarred from shrapnel burns. James tries to help, but she resists, maintaining a stubborn independence and not wanting to be coddled.
But she's a broken woman. Her distraught expression conveys listless physical and psychological agony while James helplessly watches her plop onto the couch. She greets his attempts at light humor and an offer of Scotch with an apathetic grin and a volley of sardonic quips. James is wracked with guilt for having left her alone in Iraq. He's also anxious to know where their relationship will go from here.
The couple is soon visited by mutual longtime friend Richard (Gregg Weiner) and his new girlfriend, Mandy (Betsy Graver). He's a middle-aged photo editor working for a major magazine. Mandy, an event planner, is young and naive. And while Sarah and James rib Richard about hooking up with a girl half his age, he's quick to point out the pair's dysfunctional relationship, calling them the "Sid and Nancy of journalism."
Then the possibility of returning to the war zone is brought up.
"Sarah is addicted," Adler points out. "James references the line from Blake Edwards's Days of Wine and Roses where he compares Sarah's addiction to Jack Lemon's alcoholic character. Mandy makes a compelling argument too about when it's time to put down the camera."
The two couples' relationships and lives represent the play's theme: Living life amid so much darkness isn't easy. It's particularly true in America, where war is experienced from a safe distance and is easily forgotten as we go about our daily lives.
Through her photographs, Sarah wants badly to expose the world to the atrocities of war. Richard and Mandy want to start a family. At first, Mandy comes across as a vapid, bubble-headed blonde, babbling incessantly and bringing "Get Well Soon!" balloons as if Sarah were recovering from a bicycle accident.
But Mandy is the play's conscience. Her naiveté is at once comical and maddening, but also on point. It stands in stark contrast to Sarah's biting intellect and caustic personality. The younger woman desperately tries to comprehend how Sarah cannot simply put down the camera and help war victims instead of snapping photos of them. Caught in the fray is James, who's dedicated to his work as a freelance writer and longing to return to normalcy with a resistant Sarah.
The main roadblock to Sarah and James's happy future is a secret she holds, as well as a burning desire to go back to the field once she's fully recovered. Finding the energy to sustain the relationship is a constant struggle for James.
It's in the second act of Time Stands Still that we see Margulies's commentary on war and peace. Sarah wrestles with her conscience. Is she a photographer or merely a scavenger, there to pick off the scraps of the damage left in war's wake? When Sarah and James return from an antiwar play they've just seen, James growls about the self-serving motives of such productions, saying they do nothing but assuage the liberal guilt of those who attend them. "It's a liberal pastime, preaching to the choir!" he yells.
But as James tries to find other outlets for his writing, such as working on a book about B horror movies, Sarah wants more war, regardless of its dangers.
As with every GableStage production, Time Stands Still is anchored by fine work. Adler draws crisp performances from his ensemble, particularly from Sherman, who deftly gives Sarah's pain and hardened outer shell some humanity. It would be easy to dislike this war junkie, even with her injuries. But Sherman makes her wholly human, someone we all know. Garland is genuinely affable and compassionate as the loyal-to-a-fault James, all while keeping an inner passion bottled up for the sake of his and Sarah's delicate relationship. Graver does a fantastic job of keeping Mandy's simple worldview grounded without turning the character into a cliché. The always-excellent Weiner as Richard is warm and funny; he really shows his versatility by playing a more compliant role than he usually plays.
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Time Stands Still's set is quintessential New York. With his set design, Lyle Baskin has a knack for capturing not only mood but also the city. For A Steady Rain, GableStage's previous production, Baskin brought the noir of Chicago via replica elevated-train scaffolding. Time Stands Still is entirely framed by a large window in Sarah's Manhattan loft, with brownstones standing in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. Jeff Quinn's subtle twilight and sunrise lighting give the backdrop a three-dimensional quality, while the apartment itself has hardwood floors, a simple kitchen, and shelves haphazardly stacked with books.
The production isn't without flaws. The night I attended, many lines were delivered clumsily, with the actors speaking over each other. Another flub occurred when James made a fresh pot of coffee for his guests; Garland held the supposedly piping-hot pot under his hand for a moment before taking it by the handle. But the acting overcame the discrepancies.
The themes of relationships' complexities and imperfections explored in Time Stands Still are nothing new. But the backdrop of the Iraq War makes for an interesting time capsule — one that raises probing questions while delivering an engaging and sometimes even funny story.