Making Time, No Matter Horrific, Stand Still

By Geary Danihy

Much coverage has been given to the problems that combat veterans face during and after their service. Through countless news articles and television specials we have become aware that these young men and women may, as a result of what they have experienced in a war zone, suffer depression, anxiety and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Little attention, however, has been given to those who cover these conflicts – the journalists and photographers who, in words and pictures, attempt to capture “the horror” of war. They are witnesses to carnage, cruelty and chaos, yet must, at least on the surface, maintain objectivity. The price for doing so can be great.

Such is the subject of “Time Stands Still,” a gripping play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies that recently opened at Hartford TheaterWorks under the very capable direction of TheaterWorks’ artistic director Rob Ruggiero.

This 2010 Tony Award Nominee for Best Play, set in a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 2009, opens with James (Tim Altmeyer) assisting Sarah (Erika Rolfsrud) into the loft, for she, a photojournalist, has just returned from Iraq where she was seriously wounded in a roadside bombing incident – her face is scarred, an arm is in a sling and she has a cast on her right leg. Not long after their entrance it becomes obvious that all is not well in this non-marital relationship that has lasted for over eight years – one of the initial flashpoints being that James, a journalist, left Iraq after experiencing a searing incident in which children were violently killed, his body becoming covered in their blood and viscera. Sarah stayed behind until she was injured.

But the couple’s problems run deeper, for while in Iraq alone, Sarah had a relationship with their “fixer,” an Iraqi “guide” of sorts, a relationship James is aware of…but bubbling beneath all of this is Sarah’s continuing commitment to her job and James’ slow realization that he now wants to lead a “normal,” “comfortable” life. It is out of this tension that Marguiles has crafted an often riveting, multi-dimensional drama that deals with both the physical and mental scars of war, the “ethic” of the journalist covering that war, and the mindset of those who must write about or photograph the cruelty that is the nature of combat, especially the devastating impact the conflict can have on civilians.

Adding fuel to the fire is the appearance of the two journalists’ editor, Richard, (Matthew Boston) and his companion, Mandy (Liz Holtan), a woman, an event planner, much younger than Richard. The graying editor is obviously smitten. Sarah, and to a lesser extent, James are initially disdainful of this May-October relationship, but as my play-going partner pointed out, Marguiles uses this initial reaction as one of the means by which he chronicles the changes that James, and especially Sarah (who ‘softens’ as the evening progresses), undergo.

As these four characters interact in the loft, beautifully crafted by set designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella and creatively lit (including a final, fitting black-out) by John Lasiter, the audience is challenged to deal with the cost -- and the morality behind -- delivering the news seen on television or read about in newspapers or magazines. The major problem, as Mandy points out in an emotionally charged scene (using an anecdote about an elephant and her baby caught in a sandstorm, a segment of a documentary she saw), is that to capture the story or the image the journalist must stand aloof, remain uninvolved, as people are suffering and dying. Mandy asks Sarah how she can just stand there; why doesn’t she help? Sarah’s answer is that by doing her job she is helping – James is no longer so sure.

Ruggiero has directed this quartet of outstanding actors with an eye towards pacing that is, at moments, breathtaking, especially during the numerous arguments as the actors bite into each other’s lines in a manner anyone who has had a heated verbal conversation with a friend or loved one will find totally believable.

Though some of the questions Marguiles raises are answered, and there is resolution of sorts for at least three of the characters, the core question of the ethical nature of what journalists must do to ‘get’ the story is left up to the audience to decide, for though James has found a certain peace, Sarah clings to her first love, which at the end of the show she grips with all of her strength as she looks through the aperture and, for a moment, time stands still for her.

The play runs through Sept. 15. Tickets: 860-527-7838 or go to www.theatderworkshartford.org

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