War is the backdrop in Donald Margulies' stark tale of love and conflict, Time Stands Still, which opened last night at GableStage. The play is ostensibly a study in the impassive cruelty of war through the eyes of a couple drifting towards an uncertain future while fighting to avoid being destroyed by their unspeakable experiences. It's a crisp moving production sustained by some fine performances and a script that moves along with the right measure of humor and striking drama.
Photojournalist Sarah (Deborah Sherman) has returned to the U.S. from a freelance job in Iraq after being seriously injured in 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.
The opening scene shows us Sarah, limping into her Manhattan loft, leaning against a crutch with a broken leg held in a brace, an arm in a sling, and the right side of her face scarred with shrapnel burns. James ties to help, but she resists, maintaining a stubborn independence, not wanting to be coddled. But she's a broken woman. Her distraught face expresses listless physical and psychological agony while James helplessly watches her plop down onto the couch. She greets his attempts at light humor and Scotch with an apathetic grin and a volley of sardonic quips. James is a man racked with guilt for having left Sarah alone in Iraq. He's also a man anxious to know where they go from here.
The couple is soon visited by their mutual long-time friend Richard (Gregg Weiner) and his new younger girlfriend Mandy (Betsy Graver). He's a middle-aged photo editor working for a major magazine, she's an event planner.
The two couples represent Margulies' theme of living life amidst so much darkness, particularly in America where war is seen from a safe distance. Sarah wants very badly to expose the atrocities of war, famine and genocide to the world through her photographs. Richard and Mandy want to start a family. At first, Mandy comes across as a vapid bubble-headed blonde, babbling incessantly and bringing with her gift shop helium balloons that read "Get Well Soon!" as if Sarah was recovering from a bicycle accident. But Mandy is soon revealed to be the conscience of the play. Her naïveté is at once comical and maddening, but on point. It stands in stark contrast to Sarah's biting intellect and caustic personality, even as the younger woman tries to comprehend how Sarah can't just put the camera down and help war victims instead of snapping photos of them. Caught in the fray is James, a man dedicated to his work as a freelance writer, and longing to return to normalcy with a resistant Sarah.
The main culprit to Sarah and James future resides in a secret she holds as well as a burning desire to get back into the field once she's fully recovered. The energy to sustain the relationship's ever shifting tones is a constant struggle for James.
As it is with every GableStage production, Time Stands Still is grounded in fine performances. Ms. Sherman deftly gives Sarah's pain and hardened outer shell some humanity. It would be easy to dislike Sarah, even with her injuries. But Sherman makes her wholly human, someone we all know. Mr. Garland is genuinely affable 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. Ms. Graver does a fantastic job keeping Mandy's simple worldview grounded, without ever turning the character into a cliché. The always-excellent Gregg Weiner as Richard is warm and funny and really shows his versatility as an actor playing a more compliant role than we're used to seeing from him.
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The themes of the complexities and imperfections in relationships explored in Time Stands Still is nothing new. But the backdrop of the Iraqi war makes for an interesting time capsule -- one that raises probing questions while delivering an engaging and oftentimes funny story.
Look for our extended review in this week's issue
Time Stands Still runs through June 3 at GableStage (1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables). Tickets are $50 ($47.50 for seniors). Call 305-445-1119. Visit gablestage.org.