Caught in the crosshairs
War journalists face tough choices in 'Time Stands Still'
Donald Margulies is one of America's most successful contemporary playwrights, having won the Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner with Friends" and won numerous awards and accolades for other plays including "Brooklyn Boy," "Collected Stories" and "Sight Unseen." TheatreWorks gives his most recent work, "Time Stands Still," a beautifully staged and acted production. It's perhaps his most serious and challenging play yet, one that leaves us with more questions than answers.
At opening, Sarah (Rebecca Dines), a successful conflict photojournalist, is brought home from a hospital overseas, escorted by longterm boyfriend James (Mark Anderson Phillips), a well-known war reporter. Sarah has suffered serious injuries in a Middle East bombing, and as we watch her begin to rebuild her life, we learn that James was emotionally injured by another incident. Both are clearly reeling, and lean on each other for support as they mend their bodies, hearts and minds.
Enter Richard (Rolf Saxon), their editor and friend, who introduces his newest girlfriend, much-younger Mandy (Sarah Moser), a perky and upbeat event planner. Mandy's vivacity and joy contrast mightily with the more somber perspectives of Sarah and James, affected as they are by the dark scenes of war they witness and record. When Mandy questions the passivity of photographers, Sarah defends her tribe with an impassioned speech about the mission of photojournalists — they can reveal injustice and horror, but they can't step in to "fix" what they see.
Once raised, however, the question continues to haunt and confront both James and Sarah, making them wonder about continuing to pursue such a dangerous and demanding career: To what end? With what, if any, effect? It also becomes the basis for conflict in their relationship, throwing into relief the different directions life is taking each of them. How they find their paths, both individually and together, becomes the driving arc of the play.
While challenging and intriguing us in many ways, Margulies deliberately withholds neat resolutions, providing instead a kind of fodder for discussion and debate. Sarah's choice at the end may feel predictable, but there are gaps in the unfolding of how she gets there, leaving us to ponder some big questions on our own.
Four superb actors deliver compelling work in this sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking work. Dines and Phillips spar deftly as longtime lovers and friends, fleshing out their characters believably and with precision. Their engagement with the emotional demands of the text keeps us engaged, in spite of some perilously long pauses.
Saxon has the professional-editor demeanor to a T, with just the right touch of emotional involvement. Newcomer Moser is delightfully ditzy, providing much of the play's humor, and yet can get movingly serious when required.
The Brooklyn-loft set design by Erik Flatmo is impressive in both detail and height, imparting an epic feel to the action. But the actors occasionally look a little lost in the space, and the cavernous design swallows vocal projection. Michael Palumbo's lighting enhances the action and mood and adds a nice touch for a Brooklyn rainstorm.
Despite my quibbles with the pacing and the play's ending, the production is well worth seeing, for both the timely and timeless questions it addresses. It may not give answers, but it definitely makes you think.
What: "Time Stands Still," by Donald Margulies, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through Sept. 16, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $27-$73.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.