'Time Stands Still' asks an existential question
Angela Reed and Andrew May portray a photojournalist and a reporter in City Theatre's production of "Time Stands Still."
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"The camera's there to record life. Not change it."
-- from "Time Stands Still," a play by Donald Margulies
Digital photography has made taking pictures as easy as snapping your fingers. You pop off one shot after the other of children, parties, a snowstorm or your cat looking adorable. You don't even need a camera; the cell phone will do.
It's turned the recording of life into a routine, automatic act, making it easy to forget that each picture is a unique image, the capture of a split second when time stood still.
Few of us think about photography in that way, but veteran playwright Donald Margulies forces us to rethink the meaning of freezing a moment in history.
His latest work, "Time Stands Still," is on stage at City Theatre. As unrest and war continue to rage in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it's a play that is as timely as today's headlines.
When the play opens, well-regarded photojournalist Sarah, played by Angela Reed, struggles to regain her footing after she was seriously injured by a roadside bomb covering a Mideast conflict.
Her longtime companion, freelance reporter James (Andrew May), already has thrown in the towel as a war correspondent after witnessing a grisly bombing that left him covered in blood and brains. He's nursing her back to health in their Brooklyn apartment while searching for a quieter more domestic life for himself and, he hopes, Sarah.
Sarah's experience has shaken their faith in their responsibilities as journalists. The photographer must confront the meaning of an "objective observer" while the reporter has seen more real horror that he can stand and opts out of war coverage.
However, their uncertain relationship, rather than the issues surrounding it, is at the center of "Time Stands Still."
"I feel that the play is really a romance seen through the lens of human struggle," said Ms. Reed. "It's a relationship that's evolving, maybe not in a good way, but people change."
Ms. Reed, whose acting resume runs to several pages and includes contemporary and classical works, said this play presented her with a new challenge.
"I had never been to a war zone, so it was tough to relate to Sarah's experience."
She said she found clues in the extensive research that director Tracy Brigden, City Theatre's artistic director, did to prepare the actors.
Along with investigating the details of working as a freelance journalist in a war zone ("You have no health insurance"), Ms. Brigden looked at the issue of the morality of photojournalists and the mounting toll that these latest wars are taking on those who cover them.
"Most of the casualties have been local journalists," she said. "Although lately it's been foreign journalists who have been targeted, especially by kidnappers."
She cited the abduction and subsequent release of four New York Times correspondents in Libya in March.
"It seems the international press pays more attention if Americans are involved rather than local journalists," Ms. Brigden added. "That's why we don't hear much about them."
Closer to the play's theme is the case of photographer Kevin Carter, whose searing 1993 picture of a starving Sudanese baby observed by a vulture gained him a Pulitzer Prize. He later killed himself after an outcry was raised because he didn't go to the child's aid.
Mr. Margulies places Sarah in a similar position when she photographs a dying Iraqi baby. Mandy (Robin Abramson), the young girlfriend of Sarah's editor Richard (Tim McGeever), confronts her on the circumstances of the picture:
"That poor little boy. Maybe if she took him to the hospital instead of taking his picture ..."
Sarah replies: "Rescue workers were there for that."
Later, she explains that she was helping them. "I was taking their picture."
"How is that helping them?" Mandy demands.
"By gathering evidence. To show the world. If it weren't for people like me ... the ones with the cameras ... Who would know? Who would care?"
Ms. Reed said she understands this side of Sarah. "To thine own self be true, that's Sarah. She'll always be a journalist. That's her decision. Others have to make their own."
"Time Stands Still" challenges its audiences to consider their choices as well, said Ms. Brigden.
"What is the best choice for doing good in the world?" she asked. "Do we drop everything and rush to a place that needs help, or do we continue to do what we think we do best?"
First Published October 18, 2011 12:00 am