Time Stands Still
A sorrowful reminder of war’s impact on female civilians
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|Time Stands Still|
Review by Catey Sullivan
There’s no paucity of scripts seeking to probe the aftershocks of war. From the Trojan Woman on, the bloodied ground of brutal conflict remains tragically rich theatrical fodder. But Euripides 2,000+ year-old text notwithstanding, it’s fairly rare to encounter a drama that delves the impact of officially sanctioned bloodshed on female civilians. Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still does just that with a compelling, sorrow-drenched story of a female photographer recovering stateside from a roadside bombing. Directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton, the production is far more than a novelty among the legions of male-dominated war plays or a mere equalizer on the gender scales of contemporary drama.
In Steppenwolf’s intimate Upstairs Theatre, Pendleton has shaped a narrative comprised of fiercely independent and creative characters, driven sorts who feel compelled to record the carnage and the devastation and absurdity of wars, famines, genocides and other almost unimaginable disasters as they sweep relentlessly through the most troubled pockets of the earth. Such a chronicler is Steppenwolf ensemble member Sally Murphy who plays Sarah Godwin, a photographer driven to record the destruction and make it known beyond the embattled areas.
After two weeks in a medically stabilized coma, Sarah is now back home in her New York loft, walking with difficulty, her face a map of shrapnel hit scars. She’s also grieving: The man who was her in-country-fixer – able to translate and run all kinds of interference standing between Sarah and her pictures – has been killed. One moment he was there, Sarah recalls, the next he was not.
Murphy, as a prickly mix of survivor’s guilt, rage and frustration, insisting on taking as little help as possible, presents a nerve wracking job for her long-time companion, James Dodd (Randall Newsome). As a reporter who has been buffeted by much of the same carnage as Sarah, Newsome movingly shows how the damage from such work isn’t limited to the physical. He too is a combustible mixture of love, rage, guilt and frustration, a contradictory mesh of fragility and strength as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Contrasting this tormented relationship, Margulies gives us Sarah’s editor Richard (Francis Guinan) and his much-younger girlfriend Mandy (Kristina Valada-Viars ). It falls to Mandy, an event planner who acknowledges her work is comparatively trivial, to voice more than a few troubling and primal questions of conscience: How can photographers (and reporters) just stand by taking images and notes when people are dying around them? If they’re able, shouldn’t they do something to help – feed a starving child, provide whatever aid they can to a mutilated atrocity victim? Viars’ recollection of a nature channel special tracking the death of a baby elephant separated from its mother in a sandstorm is both heartbreaking and revealing – comparing a dying elephant to a genocide isn’t the mark of the world’s deepest thinker. But the thorny issue remains nonetheless, and it’s complicated still further when Mandy pipes up . “Even when the stories do run, what is an average person supposed to do with this information?” Write a check? Write a letter? Would any make any real difference n the long run?
Trying to mitigate the passions of his beloved photographer and the youthful naivety of the woman he wants to marry, Guinan depicts a gentleness and a wisdom borne of spending years battling fires and then choosing to step back and enjoy a life less fraught. And that’s a decision that’s bearing down on James – whether to remain in the heat of endless strife or to walk away and embrace a world that’s not so tortured.
In the end, everyone in the foursome comes to their own conclusions about how to shape their own lives, and whether to record the torment of others’ from an intensely close perspective. Rather like war itself, the ending isn’t tidy. But it is heartbreakingly real.
Time Stands Still continues through May 13th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are $20-$78, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online here (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org.
All photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Austin Pendleton* (director); Walt Spangler (set); Rachel Anne Healy (costumes); Keith Parham (lighting); Josh Schmidt (sound, original music); Erica Daniels (casting); Kimberly Osgood, Michelle Medvin (stage managers); Kathleen Petroziello (asst. stage manager); Michael Brosilow (photos)
* denotes Steppenwolf ensemble member