Story: Sarah is a photojournalist who has been on assignment covering the Iraq War. When she is severely injured by a roadside bomb, she is flown to Europe, where she is met by her partner, James. A reporter himself, James had left Iraq earlier after suffering a mental breakdown brought on by his own coverage of the war.
James brings Sarah back to their Brooklyn apartment, where the disfigured and wounded photographer can convalesce. Soon after their arrival, they are visited by Richard, a photo editor for a major magazine that regularly features work by Sarah and occasionally by James as well. Richard is joined by Mandy, his new and much younger girlfriend who is an events planner by trade.
When Richard sees the latest work by Sarah, he convinces his bosses to publish a book on the war featuring Sarah’s photos with commentary by James. As Sarah recovers from her wounds, and as Richard announces that he and Mandy are starting a family, James sinks further into depression as his relationship with Sarah continues to evolve with increasing conflict between them.
Highlights: Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his work, Dinner with Friends, originated this two-act drama in 2009 in Los Angeles before it transferred to Broadway, where it received Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Actress (Laura Linney).
Margulies is a talented and perceptive writer who instills his characters with meaningful dialogue, as is the case with Time Stands Still. The current production at Insight Theatre Company features solid performances by its quartet of players who benefit from John Contini’s steadfast and precise direction.
Other Info: It’s a testament to Margulies’ craft that Time Stands Still is an absorbing work even though its two primary characters are unpleasant and not very likable people. One’s immediate concern for Sarah at seeing her condition gradually evaporates through the course of the play as it becomes apparent that her self-centered, self-important view of life will not change.
Similarly, James’ smug comment that “We were here before it was cool” in response to Mandy’s compliment on their apartment and neighborhood says quite a bit about his own shallow views. Mandy herself is quite the airhead, while Richard seems to be lost in the clouds much of the time.
And yet, Margulies’ script crackles with astute observations about life in 21st century America. He’s stated that the play is written “to capture a sense of the way we live now,” something he accomplishes with considerable aplomb.
Insight Theatre’s presentation benefits from Contini’s carefully focused direction, which blends with Mark Wilson’s well-appointed set design, some highly effective lighting by Kathleen San Roman and an especially apt sound design by Bryce Dale Allen, which carries a melancholy, haunting theme across several popular tunes.
Wilson’s design takes full advantage of the Heagney Center’s considerable stage expanse, allowing for a bedroom at stage right, a kitchen to the left and a sprawling living room at center, with Sarah’s photos dominating the apartment. Curiously, the black and white photos in the living room are arranged in strictly horizontal fashion, as if to emphasize the domination of Sarah’s work in her relationship with the dysfunctional James.
Jenni Ryan does a lot of heavy lifting in the role of Sarah. The un-credited make-up artist deserves kudos for the shocking appearance of her face, but it’s Ryan’s deliberate and caustic portrayal that most clearly defines Sarah’s being. Chad Morris is quite convincing showing the fragility of James’ psyche, more from his feelings of inferiority in Sarah’s artistic presence than in his psychological vulnerability from his coverage of the war. Under Contini’s watchful eye, it’s painfully obvious to see that the decline in Sarah and James’ relationship is deeper than they had realized.
The lesser roles of Richard and Mandy are effectively underscored by Jerry Vogel and Julia Crump. Vogel’s Richard is a soothing but practical friend who does what he can for his friends while also being fiscally responsible. He’s a bit embarrassed about his younger and ditzy girlfriend, but also yearning for a traditional family, something that chafes at James as well.
Crump looks and sounds the part of the girlish Mandy, but surprises with two powerful speeches, one in each act, that address the ages-old question of when does, or should, a journalist intervene in times of crisis?
At a point when she’s describing a particularly heart-wrenching scene from her past, Sarah proclaims that “I live off the suffering of strangers.” There is considerable debate but no final resolution in Margulies’ thoughtful story, a fitting denouement in modern life.
Play: Time Stands Still
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Avenue
Dates: August 22, 23, 24, 25
Tickets: $15-$30; contact 556-1293 or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb