As a working journalist who had spent the day sorting through graphic photos of a terror attack on shoppers in Kenya, I was in the right frame of mind to take in a performance of the Tony Award nominated 2009 play Time Stands Still by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
Zoom in on a Brooklyn-based couple – “the Sid & Nancy of journalism” — who have returned stateside after suffering bodily and PTSD injuries covering the Iraq War. Photojournalist Sarah was nearly blown to bits by a roadside bomb and is disfigured and disconnected. James, a foreign correspondent, is shell-shocked from horrors he witnessed but also wracked with guilt for having bailed on Sarah before her accident. We bear witness to the minefield of their relationship and recovery, against the backdrop of workplace battles and a communal pursuit of happiness.
Margulies can be wordy, but McLean Community Players’ production is well-paced and non-stuffy because Director Jessie Roberts gives the actors ample breathing room. The opening scenes are taut and real – poignant pauses to clean out the fridge of spoiled milk or to survey the drab landscape of a functional apartment are contrasted by natural chattiness, with characters talking over one other. Sarah, played with grit by Leta Hall, totters about the apartment like a caged tiger, watching her range of options narrow like a closing aperture. Wounds itch as they heal, yet she itches only to get back to the scene of mortal danger that makes her feel alive. Her partner, James, aka “Jamie,” is indulgent but firm, resolved to find peace and settle down.
This play boasts a high degree of difficulty, and MCP gives it its best shot. Michael Himes is at home in Jamie’s skin and uses controlled body language to travel from wasted bleariness to writer’s block to foot soldier of love and finally “normal.” Unfortunately, lead performances that start out strong decline as the plot intensifies. Hall’s emotional terrain is deeply furrowed and her gallows humor crusty enough for any newsroom, but the character’s physical constraints somehow translate to increasing stasis in the staging – as if it’s a slideshow, not three-dimensional art. Perhaps that was the intent, but even the couple’s explosive arguments, the play’s red meat, too often fall flat.
To the rescue come secondary characters Richard (Jon Roberts), a photo editor and Sarah’s boss, and Richard’s young-enough-to-be-his-daughter girlfriend, Mandy (Andra Dindzans). Written as a bimbo for comic relief, Mandy proves no dummy. In fact, she serves as a moral filter challenging both Sarah and the audience: When should a photojournalist intervene to save her subjects vs. passively recording their suffering? The cool and stoic Sarah says of Mandy: “I wish I could cry like that.” She even seems envious of Mandy’s black-and-white perspective at times. Turns out the disabled Sarah carries two crutches — the literal kind and her camera. She can appreciate a baby’s beauty, for instance, only through the limiting box of her viewfinder.
Dindzans is as ebullient as a balloon bouquet or a glamour lighting kit. With savvy skill, she keeps Mandy from being reduced to caricature. Roberts, who also serves as Sound and Projections Designer, is bull’s-eye believable, an unlikely pillar of the cast and possibly the most polished actor. Gnarly but affable, it’s Roberts as the sounding board who makes us forget we’re listening to lines on a page.
Production-wise, there are positives and negatives. Ian Brown’s set is intriguing, but puzzling. A frayed, brick, black-and-white wall used for photo projections, in fact, resembles an incomplete jigsaw puzzle – or are those pixels? When the photos appear, far too sparingly, they seem riddled with bullets. Possibly metaphorical, given that riddles, puzzles and cross words are zinging across the stage. But combined with a countrified décor – mismatched pieces devoid of New York chic, plantation oak chairs and a patchwork quilt of dorm room meets farmhouse – it’s a Rorschach test of set design. The same brickwork frames doors like escape hatches, and a zigzag lock on the exterior door seems heavy-handed (its operational sound is also overamplified like a high-security prison). Would this couple, transplanted from the front lines of a Middle East war zone, need such protection in Brooklyn?
Costume Designer Farell Hartigan fits Sarah in the perfect photographer’s flak jacket-style outfit, and the fact she wears it almost constantly in the first act, even while recuperating at home, belies her battle-readiness and discomfort being home (granted, a costume change would be near-impossible in that unwieldy leg brace). Hartigan’s choices in the second act, as relationships evolve and characters draw lines in the sand, are inspired. Jamie goes grunge, bingeing on horror movies to displace the horrors in his head, while Sarah wedges herself into wifely togs that are jarring on her, in a good way. Regrettably jarring, though, is Sarah’s Phantom of the Opera makeup – looked more like war paint than war wounds from where I sat.
Lighting Designer Jeff Auberbach shines during a scene where moonlight separates the sleepless couple, lit in opposition by the beams of a laptop vs. a flat-screen TV. His use of darkness – from the dark room of a neglected apartment to the night shade of neglected lovemaking, is moving.
As for Jon Roberts’ sound design, it’s refreshing to experience a lavalier-mic-free zone where actors rely on old-school projection. Lines occasionally get masked by sound effects — a rainstorm, a running tap, odd music choices (“Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly?) — but patrons stay engaged and rewarded with the effort.
A side note on sound: Co-producer Patti Green Roth is excited to announce that, in partnership with Metropolitan Washington Ear, the October 5th performance will be audio-described – that is, visually challenged patrons can get a live-stream feed to fill in the missing panorama. Fascinating that this service will debut with a play about the impact and boundaries of visual storytelling.
No matter its dicey focus, this production has good bones and poses questions about human decency and personal growth without broadcasting any answers, as would a responsible photojournalist sharing stories in an unbiased and unobtrusive way. A time traveler is bound by ethics not to change or stage events; so, too, the photojournalist. Sarah’s obsession with freezing time in photos ultimately threatens to isolate her … that whir of her camera lens implies life is moving too quickly around her. Shrewd commentary and worth anyone’s investigation, journalist or not.
Running Time: About 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Time Stands Still plays through October 5, 2013 at McLean Community Players performing at McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre -1234 Ingleside Avenue, in McLean, VA. For tickets call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.
McLean Community Players Present ‘Time Stands Still’ From 9/20-10/5 by Brent Stone.