Passionate ideas, skillful staging at odds with personal drama at City Theatre
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When does dedication become passion, or obsession, or even addiction? And when does the reporter or photographer become part of the story, in spite of the mantra of purist detachment?
Those are a few of the questions posed by "Time Stands Still," the recent play by Donald Margulies, now staged with complete, polished assurance by Tracy Brigden at City Theatre.
"I look through that little rectangle, and time stops," says Sarah, the photojournalist. Clearly she has an artist's dedication, well along the path to obsession. Is that a failure or a higher good?
Beyond that, what does the camera achieve? What is the responsibility of the journalist in the series of war zones where Sarah and her husband James have been plying their trades?
"The camera is there to record life, not to change it," Sarah insists. But she knows that's only part of the story. Her very presence changes the event, and the resulting photographs inform, engage, even galvanize the larger world. But all along there is the photographer's self-doubt. Does Sarah live off the suffering of strangers?
Before it raises all these questions, "Time Stands Still" is as familiar a play as the handsome Brooklyn loft apartment that is its setting, and its prolific playwright outfits it with intelligent, often witty dialogue, chronicling the relationships of two couples.
James and Sarah have just returned from the war zones of Africa and the Middle East. James is the wordsmith and Sarah the photographer, wielding words and pictures as they hurtle from one war-revolution-starvation-genocide du jour to another, grappling with the upheavals of our time.
Now they face the challenge of their own relationship as they heal their war-related wounds -- in his case, emotional, and in hers, physical, requiring lengthy rehab. But her wounds are emotional, too. And life at home, although less lurid, can be as hard as that they've left, where there was always the crisis of the moment to propel them forward.
For contrast and for humor, there is the second couple, Richard and Mandy. He's an old friend, the photo editor who publishes much of Sarah's work. Mandy is his young third wife. Seemingly naive and foolish, she provides a different angle on all their lives, and she's not so foolish as she seems.
There are battles to fight here, as well. ("War was my parents' house all over again," someone says.) Work also can be a form of escape. So Sarah and James thrash out their present and future, with the terror and glamour of their foreign adventures providing parallel and commentary.
All four performers live their roles with conviction. Tim McGeever and Robin Abramson may have the easier jobs, since Richard and Mandy embody fewer apparent complexities, but their use as comic relief requires them to navigate carefully, lest they become caricatures. They succeed, and since Mandy reveals surprising dimension, Ms. Abramson's may be the most consistently successful performance of all.
Andrew May and Angela Reed have much larger challenges. James has to play varying strains of concern for the wounded Sarah and gradual uncertainties of his own, while Sarah has to show the personal confusion and vocational passion/addiction on which the play's serious issues depend.
Both do admirable work. If there's any shortfall, it's because playwright Margulies doesn't quite voice the feelings that move them. He doesn't plumb Sarah's self-doubt as deeply as we want, and James is too often left seeming bewildered rather than intensely stirred.
"Time Stands Still" isn't quite the play it aspires to be. The characters don't fully dramatize its serious issues. There's a play about two couples and a lot to say about those issues, but that play and those ideas aren't fully integrated.
Once, they are: The play's final moment is electric. I wish there were some of that earlier.
Tony Ferrieri provides a handsome set that is just about ready for habitation, matched in verisimilitude by C.T. Steele's costumes, with the scenes further shaped by Ann Wrightson's lights. The music that frames the many scenes (by sound designer Joe Pino) is generally hard-edged, as if insisting on the edgy issues that the play raises.
Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, we used to say. The implication is that pictures are superior, a purer reportage. A further assumption is that pictures are more objective, since they "simply" show us what is there.
But that's simplistic. As much as words, pictures convey attitude. As much as pictures, words convey fact. You need both. As this play shows, it's the connections between personality and idea that make some sense of fact.
First Published October 26, 2011 12:00 am