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In a hip, New York City loft (the kind where a bike hangs from the ceiling, a French press sits in the kitchen, and Mac laptops are scattered everywhere), Sarah hobbles in. Her left leg is wrapped in a brace, she uses a crutch to get around, and when the lights turn on, we see the horrifying scars on her face. She’s returning from Iraq, not where she served in combat, but as a photojournalist when a roadside bomb launched her and her cameras into the sky. The terror of war is behind her, but the emotional drama that unfolds is almost as terrifying, as her adjustment to “normal” life makes her question meaning, love, and happiness.
Playwright Donald Margulies admits in his playbill interview (Steppenwolf always supplements its on-stage productions with exceptional on-page content) that he is fascinated by the role of an artist in society: provocateur? reflecter? activist? Like a well-argued essay, “Time Stands Still” confronts the dilemma a photographer faces when they are confronted with covering a war without intervening. Sarah finds no moral qualm, but her editor’s much-younger, perhaps naiver lover is horrified. Mandy Bloom, who we learn is about to bloom with a child, doesn’t understand how someone could snap a picture of a wounded person without snapping to action to help them. This ethical dilemma, however, is a symptom of a much greater war between worldviews that these women represent: family versus career, surrounding yourself with happiness or devoting yourself to tragedy. At the extremes of the spectrum are these two women: one wholeheartedly devoted to the former, one to the latter.
Austin Pendleton directs an impressive cast that bring life to the characters, while managing tension, comedic timing, and high, emotional stakes throughout. Sally Murphy shows considerable physical range embodying the torture of a woman in recovery, and newcomer Kristina Valada-Viars is pitch-perfect as the delightfully ignorant Mandy. Francis Guinan and Randall Newsome, the men in the drama, are only neglected here for the sake of analysis, not the quality of their performances, which are bold and richly textured.
These nuanced characters are the core of “Time Stands Still,” which is essentially a domestic drama. Josh Schmidt’s ominous original score situates it against the backdrop of a painful, foreign war, but still the characters and their desires stand at the center. Even while dealing with the ethics of wartime photography, “Time Stands Still” never abandons the needs and wants of these four fictional folks. Instead, the philosophical debates grow out of human desires and conflicts. The characters are not mouthpieces for a soapbox sermon, but rather the playwright uses the characters to play out his own struggles with the role of the artist in society. When a play can bring to life compelling characters who embody larger themes, and when a production can bring texture and life to a text in a riveting, realistic way, the audience holds their breath and time truly stands still.
Time won’t stand still — this Steppenwolf production ends May 13, 2012. More information at www.steppenwolf.org.