Donald Margulies is a highly successful playwright who has lived in New Haven for the last 30 years, where he teaches in the Yale Drama School; his plays, which are generally entertaining and accessible, are frequently performed in the area at both professional venues, like Long Wharf and Theaterworks Hartford, as well as at local community theaters. (Newtown’s Town Players staged a fine performance of Dinner With Friends a few years ago).
That Pulitzer Prize Winner, along with Sight Unseen and Time Stands Still, which garnered Tony nominations for both Margulies and star Laura Linney back in 2010, comprise what could be called the “relationship trilogy.” Each of these works examines the ways in which a couple’s attitudes toward their marriage are shaped by their connections to close friends, as well as exploring the extent to which our present lives are impacted by the baggage of history and past experience.
A third motif that recurs in Margulies’ work is the ambivalence of the artist, who feels torn between the attractions of love and personal commitment on one hand, and the need to remain an outside observer in order to satisfy his creative drive.
All three of these issues are present in Time Stands Still, the most recent of the trilogy. In this case the protagonist is Sarah, a photojournalist, who with her lover and partner, James, has spent the last eight years covering horrific events in the most dangerous and war-torn corners of the world, from Bosnia and Somalia to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as if to emphasize the play’s domestic theme, all the action takes place in a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, designed by Luke Hegel Cantarella in what has to be the most beautiful set I have ever seen. Taking up the entire stage including the wings, it is a realistically detailed re-creation of the kind of shabby but spacious fourth floor walk-up apartment that arty young singles would give their eye-teeth for: hardwood floors, separate sleeping alcove, old-fashioned appliances, room to park a bicycle by the door, and the whole thing dominated by a huge window that, except for a few blacked out panes, affords a panoramic view of industrial Brooklyn and the waterfront. To indicate the passage of time within a scene, the sky darkens, and red lights begin to twinkle in the distance.
The play opens with Sarah painfully making her way up the stairs on her first day home from the hospital; an Afghan roadside bomb has left her with horrific injuries, including a broken arm and leg, and shrapnel scars disfiguring half her face. James is there to welcome her back to the sanctuary of their nest, along with their longtime friend Richard, who is the photo editor of the magazine for which Sarah works, and Mandy, his new, much younger girlfriend.
Sarah is intense, hard-boiled and stoical, one of those dedicated war photographers whose iconic pictures have lodged in our consciousness, bringing home the reality of the appalling human suffering that is commonplace in so many parts of the world. Dumb bunny Mandy wonders if it might not have been better if journalists did less observing and recording, and simply pitched in to help the victims.
At first this seems like a failure of communication. Mandy, who works as an event planner and comes across as the embodiment of a Hallmark Card, arrives bearing Mylar balloons as a get-well gift, and is simply too uninformed, and too gauche, to recognize the importance of the work Sarah and James do. But her plaintive desire to look for the brighter side of life begins to resonate.
James was not in Afghanistan when Sarah was injured because he had already suffered his own breakdown. He had left six weeks earlier, because he wanted to be home. He was ready to have a life where he didn’t have to dodge bullets and sleep on the ground and worry about IEDs. In Richard’s decision to seek happiness with Mandy, who loves him, and is good to him, and wants to have a child, James sees a point in time in which the possibilities of safety and comfort and joy are as meaningful and important as his journalistic career once was.
In their encounters over the next six months, as Sarah sheds her crutches and then her cane, and the scars on her face fade away, she must decide what she wants and needs most in her life. She must choose between her real and deep love for James, and the adrenaline rush that comes with living in the war zones of the world, waiting for the moment, when time stands still as she concentrates on taking the perfect picture.
Rob Ruggiero is a fine director, and his cast of Erika Rolfsrud and Tim Altmeyer as Sarah and James, along with Matthew Boston and Liz Holtan as Richard and Mandy, give riveting performances.
Some people I was with found it somewhat predictable, but on the whole the audience was definitely entertained. Margulies’ dialogue is as snappy and realistic as the best Law and Order episodes. And as I said, the set alone was worth the price of admission.
Time Stands Still is playing at TheaterWorks Hartford through September 15. Check the website at www.theaterworkshartford.org for ticket prices and times, or call 860-527-7838.
Time Stands Still is appropriate for ages 14 and up.