Time Stands Still: A Powerful Story about Love, War and Life

Sarah (Kim Stauffer), Mandy (Alana Young), Richard (Sam Rush) and James (Nathan Kaufman), the cast of Time Stands Still, at New Century Theatre this weekend.
Sarah (Kim Stauffer), Mandy (Alana Young), Richard (Sam Rush) and James (Nathan Kaufman), the cast of Time Stands Still, at New Century Theatre this weekend.

Tonight we were happy to miss hearing Donald Trump make another speech, and instead, dove into a rich and emotional performance of a top notch play at New Century Theatre.  From the opening moments when I saw the set of Time Stands Still I knew we were in for a treat. Set designer Daniel D. Rist adds touches of verisimilitude like running water, a real exterior door, even a hallway outside that looks like it belongs in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment. It was all a prelude to a play written by a Pulitzer winning playwright, Donald Margulies, and a cast that matched the top notch script with their own poignant portrayals of life in a hard time.

It’s hard because Sarah Goodwin has just returned from a hospital in Germany, injured, after a tour of duty in Iraq. She is a war photographer, who, like so many soldiers, ran over an IED and almost lost her life.   When that accident occurred, it not only injured her but it killed her “fixer,” Tariq, who features heavily into the narrative, as it is revealed that he was a bit more than a fixer, he was her lover in Iraq after her boyfriend James left the country with shell shock over what he witnessed.  The pair are hardened war reporters and have tales to tell, though the darkness of their world isn’t appealing to everyone around them.

Sarah is a wreck, barely able to contain her anger over her inability to walk, and she lashes out at James, her partner of 8 years as he tries hard to make her comfortable in their tiny apartment. There is no where to escape to, except the tiny bathroom. “I just want a cup of f—g coffee!” she screams, tired of his worrying about her caffeine and so many other details like her meds and regimen of therapy and doctor’s appointments.  Clearly she isn’t comfortable being comfortable–she yearns for her life in the battle zones, shooting images of dying children, weeping at one point as she recalls a woman who bloodied her camera lens when she kept shooting after a market is car-bombed. “There I was, a ghoul, shooting away. A life of the suffering of strangers.”

The play takes on a intriguing question about the role of war photographers…should they keep shooting as people are dying, don’t they owe the victims a chance to be saved? Shouldn’t these photographers be doing more to help than simply pushing the shutter over and over?  And ultimately, what can we here in the comfortable US do to help those war victims?  Nobody has the answer, and soon it comes to a head when company arrives at the apartment.

We get a break from these two journalists who have both spent years covering wars when Richard and Mandy show up. He’s her 50-something editor at the magazine, and Mandy (played by Alana Young) is his naive, pretty young girlfriend.  When Mandy exits the stage to go to the bathroom, the knives come out against Richard’s choice of a partner. “You always wanted a little girl, Richard. There’s young and there’s embryonic,” she says with a sneer. But Richard won’t have it, remarking on his age-appropriate former mate Astrid. “I’m done with brilliant. I want something simple for a change.”   He’s never been happier than in the arms of young Mandy. “It’s like going from black and white to color,” he says, “or when the Berlin wall came down.”

Kim Stauffer and James Dodd.
Kim Stauffer and James Dodd.

The play shows the characters evolving, and doing the things they all think will make them happy. Richard and Mandy have a child, delighting both of them, and James and Sarah marry, hey it’s been 8 1/2 years after all.  But we can tell that the comfortable life that James relishes on the couch, watching old horror movies is exactly what Sarah never wanted.  She still yearns for the smell of mortar rounds and the adrenaline of war photography duty.

But after a decade of sleeping on the ground, James realizes he just wants to be comfortable. “Why go back there?” he asks, as it becomes clear that Sarah once recovered will be going back.  Despite their marriage, she’s wedded to the life she left, and they amicably split. But James explains, “I don’t want to be on a mission every time I get on a plane.”  He wants to have children…and take them to Disneyworld.

James wrestles with life as a freelancer as his story about refugees becomes a victim of today’s media landscape. “Sorry, no room, it’s our Hollywood issue,” Richard says, trying to defend a decision made above him. Despite the terrible depravity of life as a refugee, no one has time to read about them, there is only room for one crisis per month in our minds and in the magazine.

Each of these actors wring the absolute most they can out of this great script–Sam Rush as Richard perfectly captures that editor’s dilemma, all too familiar, that tough balance between what needs to be published and what ultimately does get published.  Alana Young as Mandy (in the New York production, Mandy was played by Alicia Silverstone) does a spot on job of showing how she evolves with motherhood, and her daffy comments at the play’s beginning contrast with the true wisdom about what’s really important in life…and the things we can’t do anything about.

Time Stands Still. New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center for the Arts, Smith College. Friday-Sunday. Tickets: New Century Theatre 413-585-3220