By Roberta Silman
In this seemingly modest, but beautifully constructed and deeply moving play, Donald Margulies has tackled some of the thorniest questions of our time.
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. Directed by Nicole Ricciard. Staged by Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, MA, through October 13.
I remember seeing this play in New York City when it was first produced about a decade ago and, although I knew it was a good, thoughtful play about important issues of our time, I was not expecting to be riveted when seeing it again. However, I am happy to report that Time Stands Still is as relevant now as it was then, and that the Shakespeare and Company production is superb. It achieves a sense of intimacy with the audience that I have rarely seen; you feel as if you are actually in this small apartment with these four actors, who seem born to play these roles.
The themes are age-old but seem fresh and new. Sarah is a photographer who comes home from the Middle East badly wounded; her partner for eight years is James, a journalist who has worked in the same war zones and came home before she was wounded. He seems to have suffered a mental breakdown from the experience. Now these two people, who are in their early 30s, are living in close quarters in Manhattan because Sarah must heal and, in the process, they must figure out a way to go forward.
Sarah (Tamara Hickey) is the tougher of the two, the one more committed to their profession, the one for whom the camera is a way to make “time stand still” when people are forced to live in extremis. In fact, Sarah could be the sister of Marie Colvin, the war journalist whose book I wrote about a few months ago. Defiant in her conviction that she is right, she is addicted to “bearing witness,” although she understands full well that she is open to the charge of obscene behavior in her choice to photograph rather than help the victims of war.
James (David Joseph) is less rigid, and recent events have forced him to look at their lives and contemplate an existence less crazy, less frantic, something more peaceful, more normal. A home, children, becoming a family. That overriding desire overcomes even Sarah’s confession that she has slept with their “fixer,” Turic. He is determined to marry this extraordinary woman whom he loves so dearly and with whom he has shared so much.
Into this mix comes Richard (Mark Zeisler), who is older and the photo editor of the magazine which bankrolls these two and who, years ago, slept with Sarah. And with Richard is young Mandy (Caroline Calkins), with whom he has fallen in love and who seems a bit simple and wants nothing more than to make Richard happy and have his baby. Ironically, it is Mandy who ultimately asks the real questions about what Sarah and James are doing, what good it serves, if it is truly art, and how it may be warping their lives.
The tension that builds as the play unfolds is at times unbearable, mostly because these actors are absolutely authentic in their roles and in their ability to convey the gravity of what is happening. There is not a single misstep. Every detail — the inflections in their speech, the way Sarah falls when she is not yet able to stand on her own, the expressions on their faces as they dig in their heels — seems spontaneous and true. Especially impressive was the development of the character of James; David Joseph got it perfectly and really outdid himself.
Much of this must be credited to the amazing direction by Nicole Ricciardi, who has created, out of Margulies’s sentences, a situation that becomes powerfully real. Kudos also to the set designer, John McDermotta, the lighting designer, James W. Bilnoski, the costume designer, Charlotte Palmer-Lane, and the sound designer, Amy Altadonna.
What is also so sad is that we, as a country, are still fighting endless wars in the Middle East, a fact utterly disheartening yet made so palpable by the list included in the program of the 28 journalists killed so far on assignment in 2019, as compiled by Reporters Without Borders. So, in the end, my thanks to this experienced playwright, best known for his more domestic plays (Dinner with Friends, Sight Unseen, Collected Stories, among others), who has tackled in this seemingly modest, but beautifully constructed and deeply moving play some of the thorniest questions of our time.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.