Time Stands Still

When Sarah, the ambitious, chain-smoking photojournalist at the heart of Time Stands Still, returns from assignment in Iraq, she’s broken and battered. Her face and neck are scarred; her leg’s in a cast. Eventually the cast comes off, but the scars don’t.  

Holly Twyford and Greg McFadden (Photo: Scott Suchman)

In today’s media-saturated times, to bring a play about a photojournalist to Washington is a zeitgeist-capturing move, and especially now at the Iraq War’s end, when those who have devoted the better part of the last decade to covering the carnage must be feeling a sense of ennui at the public’s growing indifference to all of it. The Studio Theatre has embraced the challenge of Time Stands Still with great aplomb, and the results, like Sarah’s photos, speak for themselves.

In a role originated on Broadway by Laura Linney, Holly Twyford plays Sarah with a saucy bitterness that becomes endearing and, ultimately, transfixing. She spends nearly an entire act sitting down with her leg propped up, but nevertheless commands a fierce presence.

Sarah attempts to settle back into a low-key Brooklyn existence with her live-in boyfriend James (Greg McFadden, in an aching and vulnurable performance), who had been covering a story about Iraqi refugees until he suffered a battleside breakdown and had to return home prior to her injury. Now reunited in their spacious apartment (a set designed by John McDermott that looks like one of those impossibly nice pads only intellectuals on TV can afford), the pair attempt to grapple with what has happened to them, and to the world, and if anyone still cares.

Twyford and McFadden are joined onstage by Dan Illian as their long-suffering editor and Laura C. Harris as his new young squeeze, an event planner who understands little about the world of journalism. The foursome have an effortless chemistry, which is not to say that you can picture all of them being best friends, but rather that each character’s interpersonal dynamic feels exactly as it should. Harris shines in arguably the play’s most thankless task: arising discomfort in the others by appearing simultaneously ignorant of the outside world and exuberant enough to make you despise her for even trying to fit in. Her outside-the-margins perspective ultimately proves to be the play’s crucial wedge into our comfort zones.

Time Stands Still explores some of the thornier sides of the profession, chiefly whether it’s moral to take pictures of suffering people rather than helping them. Basic journalistic ethics dictates that you don’t help — the photographer is supposed to be an impartial lens to the world, nothing more — but protocol does little to assuage the conscience of someone who’s watched a stranger die.

Watching the play, I was reminded of The Bang Bang Club, the band of Apartheid-era South African photojournalists who won Pulitzer prizes for their grisly images in the early ‘90s but had trouble coming to terms with their line of work (Kevin Carter, who took the famous picture of a vulture hunting a Sudanese child, committed suicide in 1994). It takes Sarah till very late in the game to acknowledge that she’s based her entire career on such suffering, but when she does, it’s a heartbreaking moment.

Playwright Donald Margulies roots his characters, our eyes and ears to war, in a touching interpersonal drama, and in a wise move, director Susan Fenichell keeps the action grounded, steered away from excessive theatrical expressionism (though the overbearing music that signals scene changes is too soap opera-esque). But Margulies and Fenichell also critique the very idea that a play about war can help its audience come to better terms with its tragedy. James delivers a brilliant monologue to that effect, recalling a play he saw about children of a warzone where the mostly white, educated, informed, liberal crowd stood up and applauded at the end, “congratulating themselves for enduring such a tragedy.”

It’s worth noting here that the crowd at the matinee showing appeared to be mostly cut from the same cloth that James describes. The question of whether this fact aggrandizes the message or disproves it is outside of my pay grade.

Time Stands Still was nominated for a Tony for Best Play when it made its Broadway debut in 2010, and it’s not hard to see why: the production turns conventional wisdom on its head and suggests that seekers of truth may not always be a force for good. As James says, there have been wars, there are still wars and there will continue to be wars, regardless of whether or not Sarah is there to shoot them. When nobody wants to hear the message, the medium, for all intents and purposes, may no longer exist.

Time Stands Still runs thru Feb 12, 2012 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
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Time Stands Still
Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Susan Fenichell
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin

Highly recommended
Running time:  2 hours with 1 intermission 

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Comments

  1. Andrés Talero says:

    Wow, this is a really good review Andrew!  Well done!

  2. Hana Slevin says:

    Nice review! This was a fantastic production. 

  3. Time Stands Still was the first Studio Theatre production Jacqueline and I fully enjoyed this year.  Playwright Donald Margulies, who teaches at Yale, writes well, if a bit programmatically.  The set was excellent.  The performances of Dan Illian as the photo editor Richard and Laura C. Harris as his innocent young girlfriend Mandy were spot-on.

    In my view, however, this play is only incidentally about the profession of journalism and journalistic ethics.  Rather it is about the usual literary suspects — sex and death.  Death?  Each character represents a point on the spectrum of ability to confront life-threatening experiences.  Photojournalist Sarah, who is at the peak of her career, embraces them eagerly.  She is even content to live with her battle scars.  Her boyfriend James, who is less successful, used to as well.  After an unexplained breakdown, however, he has withdrawn to writing dubious analyses of Japanese horror films, which he watches in the comfort of the couples’ Brooklyn living room.  Photo editor Richard, who was once involved with Sarah, expresses mild cynicism about war zone photography.  Robert Capa might have been a bit of a poseur, he suggests, but Richard is only too happy to arrange photos of horrific scenes for tasteful publication.  Meanwhile, all that his naive friend Mandy ever learned about life-threatening experiences apparently came from The Discovery Channel.  Sex?  The characters vary inversely, depending on their willingness to meet pressure head-on, in their willingness to love, couple, and form families.  For Mandy, it is easy.  For Sarah, it is hit or miss.  The tension between sex and death is at the center of the drama.

    I was less impressed with the characterizations of Sarah and James.  Sarah is created, or possibly portrayed, as a straight-ahead character; she rarely recoils or reflects.  James, it is clear, has demons inside of him, but we never learn what they are, except possibly through a hint at the end.  I found him less “aching and vulnerable” than insubstantial.  More nuance, more dimensions in the principal characters might have made this play Tony-worthy. 

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