Time, Time, Time - See What’s Become of Me
It's easy to see why Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still, which opened on Broadway in 2010 and garnered several Tony nominations, is a favorite of regional and local theaters (there have been recent productions at Stratford's Square One and Hartford's TheaterWorks). With its unit set and four characters, it is relatively economical to produce, plus its classic form – exposition – rising action – climax – and denouement – is comfortable territory for most playgoers. Add to this the tightly drawn characters and the contemporary themes and you have all the ingredients for a crowd-pleaser, and those who make their way up to New Milford TheatreWorks will, by and large, be rewarded. As directed by Sonnie Osborne, this two-act examination of relationships and moral ambiguities both challenges and entertains.
Set in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, loft, the play opens with Sarah (Alicia Dempster) and James (Aaron Kaplan) returning home from Germany, where Sarah has been convalescing after being severely injured by an explosion of a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq. She is a photojournalist – he is a journalist – and they bear the physical and psychological scars of their chosen professions. After their return, what unfolds is a multi-layered examination of the nature of human commitment and need as well as a struggle to define the moral parameters of those who are charged with observing and recording mankind's compelling need to destroy itself in the name of whatever "ism" is au courant.
As a counterpoint to Sarah and James' relationship – an 8-year tentative and testy partnership-with-rights seasoned (and sexually stimulated by) individual and mutual horrific experiences – is the May-September romance of Richard (Will Jeffries) and Mandy (Erin Shaughnessy), he a long-time friend of both Sarah and James and a photo editor for a magazine, a man who has walked around the romantic block several times, and she a somewhat jejune event planner who could easily be his daughter. Not to put too facile an interpretation on this duality, the two couples seem to evoke the yin and yang, the darkness and light that both haunts and defines relationships, for Sarah and James, in both their professional and personal lives, deal with death and the end of things, while Richard and Mandy, as incongruous as their relationship may seem, embrace life and the possibility of new beginnings.
This may all seem like grim stuff, and some of it is, what with descriptions of women and children blown apart, flesh and blood coating the eyes and clothes of the observer, but there is a thread of humor that runs through the play, driven mainly by Sarah and James' take on their friend's new relationship, captured early on by a delightful double-beat of silence, complete with diverted eyes and evocative facial expressions, followed by Richard's explosive, two-word profanity that never fails to jolt and delight the audience.
As Sarah, Dempster gives a nuanced performance, showing us both the hard carapace that allows her to do what she does and the fragility and uncertainty that lurk beneath. She is an independent, prickly-pear, a woman who captures, in photo after photo, man's inhumanity to man, and to do so she must shut herself off from innate emotions – she must continuously argue against that part of herself that wishes what she chronicles would be otherwise. Her camera is her apotropaic defense, for as she intimately captures carnage there is always a lens between her and horrific reality. Hers is a demanding yet fulfilling role, and Dempster fills it admirably, using not only her voice but body language to convey the conflictions that beset her character.
Kaplan, who plays somewhat of a weathervane character (i.e., one the audience uses to measure where the moral center of the play resides), gives James that needed sense of reaching the end of the road while, at the same time, thirsting for new beginnings. His task is to reveal the psychological toll taken on men and women who, assignment after assignment, must objectively report on the horror while, at the same time, yearn for a supportive, intimate relationship with a woman who must keep her emotions in check, who weighs commitment against vulnerability, whose style of communication, when she deigns to speak, is both terse and acerbic, who folds her arms across her chest to protect herself from the possibility of caring. Kaplan is extremely successful in conveying frustration, righteous indignation and an underlying need to experience a life that is not defined by death, whose idea of sharing a life encompasses more than enabling.
As the two actors slowly yet effectively develop their characters, Margulies script builds an emotional pressure cooker that eventually explodes near the end of the second act, and it is here that Dempster and Kaplan especially shine as all of the raw emotions that they have hinted at yet repressed now flare. It's primal theater, enhanced by the lighting design of Richard Pettibone and Scott Wyshynski, for as Dempster and Kaplan engage their characters for a final confrontation of need, fear and desire, the lighting subtly changes, diminishes, focusing the audience's eyes on the battle – the set, also designed by Pettibone and Wyshynski, falls away and we are left with two people fighting to define themselves and their relationship, trying to find common ground in a world of shifting sands.
As the somewhat bemused, avuncular friend, Jeffries is perfect as a man of a certain age who, tired of having to justify himself to maintain a relationship in which choosing a restaurant is a matter of "arbitration," simply wants to revel in the youth and exuberance of his newest partner. He creates a nice counterpoint to the inherent turbulence Sarah and James are experiencing, for he gives us a man who is both world-weary and accepting, a man who has found a final harbor, and though it may be imperfect, he is satisfied to moor there, sails furled, bobbing on the gentle waves that Mandy creates.
Mandy (originally played by Alicia Silverstone in the play's first production at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2009) is a tough role to capture, for she must initially seem to be, if not witless, at least unseasoned, a babe in the woods who eventually finds her focus in motherhood while, at the same time, challenging Sarah's philosophy of necessary neutrality in the face of human suffering. Shaughnessy, lithe and pretty, physically embraces the role, but she often seems to be skimming the surface of her character, aware of whom she is supposed to be playing rather than simply being the character. She is not helped by Osborne's direction, which is almost faultless throughout the evening save for Mandy's confrontation scene late in the second act, for Osborne has the actress – or allows the actress – to break eye contact with her fellow actors, totally opening up (i.e., facing the audience) and delivering her lines as if they are a soliloquy, substantially diminishing their emotional impact.
Quibbles aside, TheatreWorks has boarded a gripping take on Margulies' excursion into the heart of contemporary darkness. The intimacy of the theater can't help but heighten the audience's involvement with these four characters as they struggle to define themselves and their relationships. The play's final moment, sans dialogue, captures the voyeuristic nature of our society, though it would have been enhanced with a flash before blackout rather than a mere whirring focus of a lens -- a punctuation that startles -- but there's enough here to engage and generate drive-home discussions about those who deliver the images and words that capture the terror, hatred and dread that taints our 21st-century world (and the toll it takes on them), and those who consume these images as they thumb through magazines or idly watch the evening news while dining on take-out.