Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies’ fascinating drama at Bristol Riverside Theatre, seems at first as if it’s going to be a deep meditation on war and politics. But Margulies’ characters, as it turns out, aren’t greatly concerned with those big issues. What matters most to them are personal issues – and what matters to the playwright is how moral quandaries and traumatic events affect different people in different ways. Director Susan D. Atkinson’s sincere production searches for just the right blend of tension and tenderness, and usually finds it.
Time Stands Still opens with photographer Sarah and her reporter boyfriend James returning to their Brooklyn apartment from an assignment in the Middle East that went horribly wrong: he suffered a mental breakdown, and she was hit by a roadside bomb that left her with an arm in a sling, a leg in a cast, and a body pockmarked by shrapnel scars. Her recovery will be a long and arduous one. James is wracked by guilt over leaving her alone at the time of her attack, and now he wants to start a new life with her that doesn’t involve covering war. “Let’s stop running,” he tells her. But while Sarah wants to make him happy, she can’t leave her past life behind. She’s still volatile, always ready for combat – even if that combat is in her own apartment. As they face up to their own weaknesses and transgressions, Sarah and James struggle with how to face the future, and how much of the past they can leave behind.
Time Stands Still works in large part thanks to its appealing characters and Margulies’ warm, naturalistic dialogue. Sarah, James, and their longtime friend and editor Richard speak with the familiar cadence of people who have been close for years. The fourth character is an outsider who enters their world: Mandy, the new (and much younger) girlfriend of middle-aged Richard. She’s giggly and girlish, and Sarah and James don’t take her seriously at first. When Mandy chirps that she’s an event planner, Sarah responds with sarcasm that goes over Mandy’s head: “I guess you can say I’m into events too – wars, famines, genocide.” The contrast between the unsophisticated (but surprisingly perceptive) Mandy and the others has potential, but Margulies doesn’t explore it enough. Mandy’s relationship with Richard isn’t fleshed out, so we never understand what he sees in her and what makes their relationship work.
We do, however, understand what Sarah and James see in each other, how they feed off each other’s needs, and how they understand each other’s motivations. It’s because Margulies has drawn the viewer so deeply into the couple’s internal lives that the show’s climax, and the change that it brings about in their lives, feels rushed and a bit unsatisfactory. But like so much about Time Stands Still, it feels believable.
Eleanor Handley is ideal as the bitter, weather-beaten Sarah, struggling to return to a normal life while trying to figure out what “normal” is for her. Her steely determination grounds the production, and her body language is convincing at every stage of her character’s recovery. Michael Satow is appealing, but his James lacks the gravity to be convincing as a damaged, world-weary war correspondent. (Part of that is due to Costume Designer Linda B. Stockton, who dresses Satow in blue jeans and grungy plaid shirts that make him look too young for his role.) Danny Vaccaro’s Richard has a heartfelt and avuncular sensibility, while Laura Giknis gives the proceedings a burst of energy as Mandy, then gradually reveals the resolve below Mandy’s bubbly surface.
Atkinson’s leisurely-paced direction makes the big issues seem bigger, but it undercuts the humor in the more comic moments; one joke that should get a big laugh (and did get one in a previous production I saw) falls flat here due to the timing. Jason Simms’ set design provides Sarah and James with a handsome warehouse loft, complete with brick walls and wooden beams, that makes you wonder why this couple would ever want to leave home. Joe Doran’s lighting adds to the beauty, though having the lights start to dim 30 seconds before the end of every scene is irritating and unnecessary.
Time Stands Still isn’t perfect, but it’s a provocative full of smart people examining some tough issues head on. It’s definitely worth seeing.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Time Stands Still plays through Sunday, February 11, 2018 at Bristol Riverside Theatre – 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 785-0100, or purchase them online.