Some people need to take photos to snap their chaotic perspective into focus. This is the theme of the 2009 Tony-nominated play Time Stands Still, which just enjoyed a successful run (ending Sept. 16) at TheaterWorks in Mountain View. I saw both the TheatreWorks version and the play on Broadway, and as a comparison, I found that this production kept the set and acting to high standards.
Two journalists, a couple, return from Iraq after documenting the affects of the American occupation. The woman photojournalist, Sarah Goodwin, was badly injured from a roadside bomb while on the job. This occurred when her partner, James Dodd, had already returned to New York City after witnessing an incident of especially traumatizing civilian deaths.
Although the play shows us the aftermath of their time documenting civilian casualties, their trauma is tangible. The play sparks many philosophical debates as you watch the couples personal lives, as they struggle to regain steadier footing back on home soil.
The juxtaposition between the main couple and their best friends — Goodwin’s editor Richard Ehrlich and his young, happy-go-lucky partner, Mandy Bloom — is fascinating. On Broadway the young woman was played by Christina Ricci, and in this production Sarah Moser does an exquisite job with this complex role.
Although Goodwin (Rebecca Dines, who did an amazing job portraying the fierce temperament of her character) has the most lines in the play, Moser as Mandy created a stereotype and then unpacked that two-dimensional portrayal. At first it's easy to judge the personality type that Mandy embodies, and to assume that she “just doesn't get it” compared to these worldly journalists. In comparison she seems shallow, fluffy and even stupid.
But Mandy has the pleasure of delivering one of the most striking lines in the play — as she turns to James and Sarah after a charged debate they were having with Richard, Mandy is able to have the last word, in complete exasperation and disbelief: “Why can't you just let yourself enjoy life? You are always focusing on war and death, and I think if you can't also enjoy being alive, then really, what's the point?” This line drew an audible murmur of acknowledgement from the audience.
As a journalist and human rights activist I found this play incredibly fascinating. It highlights the differences between a passive observer and someone who can affect change, and the obligation some Westerners feel to forsake comfortable lifestyle options and put themselves in dangerous situations. How much can taking a photo of the slain bodies of innocent civilians in foreign countries really show respect to the victims? I would call the play an exploration of the lines between personal and professional, one country and another, taking a photo and actually understanding what is being photographed.
The production was amazing, and despite that some lines were delivered in exaggerated tones, I think that the hearts of Donald Margulies’ script and those bringing it alive, including director Leslie Martinson and scenic designer Erik Flatmo, shone through. (Playwright Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for his play Dinner with Friends.)
A powerful work like Time Stands Still has the ability to motivate audience members to become politically aware and active. "Well, what's the point of preaching to the choir?" James complains after he and Sarah return home from a political play with Mandy and Richard. "The audience is just going to say, oh how awful, how unjust! And then go back to taking a huge bite of their fancy appetizer."