TIME STANDS STILL: Lives Out of Focus and Frozen by War
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by Jan Nargi
Written by Donald Margulies; directed by Scott Edmiston; scenic design, Janie E. Howland; costume design, Elisabetta Polito; lighting design, Karen Perlow; sound design, Dewey Dellay; production stage manager, Nerys Powell; assistant stage manager, Cat Dunham Meilus
Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies' 2010 Tony Award nominated play making its Boston premiere at the Lyric Stage Company now through March 17, is an interesting but not completely satisfying drama about a mid-life couple reassessing their relationship and high-risk careers after he (Jamie, a foreign correspondent) and she (Sarah, a photojournalist) become victims themselves of the Iraq War they have been covering for many years. When Jamie suffers post traumatic stress after witnessing a series of horrific deaths and Sarah is almost killed in a roadside bombing, the two hunker down in their Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft to heal their wounds and map out a new future.
The trouble is Jamie (Barlow Adamson) now wants marriage, children, and a writing career far removed from the atrocities of war. Sarah (Laura Latreille) can't turn her back on the Middle East quite that easily. Like a caged animal hungry to return to the chase, she chafes at Jamie's overprotective attention and works ferociously to rehabilitate her mangled leg. Ill-suited to domesticity – and obviously more comfortable dealing with people once removed through a camera lens – she paces, pontificates, and pounces anytime she feels cornered or confined.
For Sarah, the camera is both a cause and a crutch. With it she can expose to the world the forgotten tragedies that most people choose to dismiss or ignore. But she can also hide behind it, coolly chronicling life and death with an emotional detachment that enables her to take shot after time-freezing shot even as her subjects lie dying, crying to her for help. When Mandy (Erica Spyres), the conventional but kind-hearted young girlfriend of Sarah's world-weary photo editor Richard (Jeremiah Kissel), is outraged by Sarah's apparent lack of compassion, Sarah replies pragmatically, "The camera is there to record life, not change it. I'm there to take pictures."
In Sarah Margulies has sketched the outline of a fascinating character, a composite of daring female photojournalists who in their ground-breaking careers put a human face to world-changing historical events. Unfortunately, Margulies falls short of making his heroine truly absorbing by failing to flesh out the deeper psychological motivations that drive her to seek the adrenalin-charged chaos of the war zone in favor of lasting intimate relationships. A dysfunctional family background is given a cursory mention, but we are left to wonder how much of her intense attraction to the battle field is a calling, a death wish, or a desperate escape from personal demons made less haunting in the face of anguish much greater than her own.
Jamie, too, is rather thinly drawn, an affable bloke who inexplicably stumbled into journalism and war correspondence after graduating from business school. He's clearly a kindred spirit of Sarah's in terms of purpose and political beliefs, but what has brought and kept them together for almost nine years is a bit of a mystery. Also given short shrift is the inner turmoil that Jamie experiences in relation to his breakdown and to his conflicting feelings toward Sarah. Just when Margulies gets close to unleashing the full effects of the collateral damage that has doomed Jamie and Sarah as a couple, he backs off, choosing instead to have his characters spew easy rhetoric instead of honest emotion.
As a result, Time Stands Still too often deflects the audience away from Sarah and Jamie's more gripping personal issues in favor of extraneous plot points and platitudes. A love affair, professional jealousies, the requisite liberal vs. conservative discussion about what we can or can not do about the war, and the reduction of the couple's struggle to a clichéd mid-life epiphany all mitigate the power of Margulies' sometimes poignant and often scathingly funny writing. The characters border on stereotypes, and the play flirts dangerously at times with becoming the very kind of shallow, left-wing, guilt-assuaging anti-war treatise that Jamie disparages after returning home one night from a night of particularly self-congratulatory theater.
Director Scott Edmiston and his cast of four, however, manage to elevate the play beyond its own literal limitations. Latreille is at times devastating as Sarah, fierce, determined, and yet revealing ever so slightly a sad emotional frailty she works doggedly to keep at bay. Letting anger and impatience fuel her passion, she is like an anxious but hobbled sprinter trying to stay one step ahead of a terrifying past. As Jamie, Adamson occasionally lets a subtle stiffness creep into his big boyish smile, hinting at the ambivalence he feels toward Sarah and the disgust he harbors at his own inability to make any real difference in the world. Together they bat Margulies' sharp banter back and forth effortlessly, both comic and tragic. They also bring a tenderness to certain scenes that is as powerful as any of their more combustible exchanges.
Kissel is an absolute delight as the middle-aged Richard, a highly successful photo editor at a prominent news magazine who has traded in his longtime but high-maintenance girlfriend for the younger, "simpler" Mandy. With great comic flare, Kissel conveys all the exasperation and adoration of a man truly in love with a woman half his age and light years behind him in life experience. He also establishes himself convincingly as friend, mentor, colleague, and sole connection to life on the home front for Sarah and Jamie.
As Mandy, the ebullient event planner, Spyres manages to be both simple and eloquent, infusing her down-home naïveté with a genuine humanity that is more direct and personal than that shared by her "betters." While preferring to focus on the joy in life rather than the atrocities, her capacity to empathize is nonetheless more palpable, perhaps because she is yet to be desensitized or worn down by the prevalence of harsh reality.
The Loft studio apartment in which the action takes place is a pitch-perfect creation by scenic designer Janie E. Howland. Exposed brick, metal posts, doors and beams, rough hewn hardwood floors, frosted industrial window panes and a massive angled skylight evoke the urban renovations that have turned abandoned manufacturing districts into trendy residential areas. Sparsely furnished with a futon, mismatched tables and chairs, a modest island kitchenette and a nondescript bookshelf, the space suggests that its residents are not lengthy visitors. It is more work room than home, filled with more books, photographs, and manuscripts than personal belongings or creature comforts. It is somewhat telling that, even though Sarah and Jamie live there together, it has a distinctly masculine feel.
Thanks to a talented cast and Scott Edmiston's insightful direction, the Lyric Stage's Time Stands Still offers much to ponder. When all is said and done, however, the one relationship that really lingers is the one between a woman and her camera. Until she can look through its lens and clearly see herself, her world will never really be in focus.
PHOTOS BY MARK S. HOWARD: Laura Latreille as Sarah and Barlow Adamson as Jamie; Laura Latreille and Barlow Adamson; Erica Spyres and Mandy Bloom, Jeremiah Kissel as Richard, Barlow Adamson and Laura Latreille; Barlow Adamson, Erica Spyres, Jeremiah Kissel and Laura Latreille; Laura Latreille