When photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Sally Murphy) returns to the United States after barely surviving a bomb blast in Iraq, things on the home front have changed. Her long-time partner James (Randall Newsome), a freelance journalist himself, has become disillusioned with the profession and would prefer to settle into a simpler and more stationary life. For Sarah, the urgency of war is all she’s known, and photojournalism has not only become a cathartic release, but also a sort of addiction. As Sarah defends her profession at the end of the first act she says, “If it weren’t for us—the ones with the cameras—who would know? Who would care?”
Sarah’s character is fiercely independent, relentless and steadfast, a stark contrast to Mandy Bloom (Kristina Valada-Viars), new girlfriend of Sarah’s editor Richard Ehrlich (Francis Guinan). Mandy—though seemingly naïve—is a catalyst for breaking down Sarah’s walls and forcing her to contemplate some self-revealing questions: At what point is the photographer obligated to turn from bystander into active participant? In these extreme acts of violence, is the photographer invading some intimate moment? When do you wipe the blood off your lens and stop shooting? Sarah even admits to herself in the second act: “I live off of the suffering of strangers.” For the brief time she’s not surrounded by this affliction, she refracts her lens on life, and over one year in her small Brooklyn apartment, time literally stands still.
It’s this constant give and take between characters—their incessant need to challenge one another—that propels this story forward. Each character maintains his or her integrity throughout the entire moral debate—largely thanks to the writing of Pulitzer Prize- winning Donald Margulies and the direction of Austin Pendleton. Actress Sally Murphy successfully captures the complexity of a character like Sarah Goodwin, torn between the “selfish” pursuit of happiness and the wants and needs of others. And Kristina Valada-Viars takes Mandy from a potentially flat and superficial character to a robust, likeable and essential part of the story’s progression.
It’s always an ambitious endeavor to frame a story with war. How do you weigh such substantial topics against the everyday strife of relationships, marriages and friendships? By juxtaposing the urgency and intensity of war with the mundanity and habitual nature of the home front (as Sarah asks the night of her return: “What are we going to do tomorrow? And the next day? And the next?”), Margulies creates an innately and deeply rooted tension. And as the story progresses, we narrow in on the values of each character and are forced to re-evaluate our own. Time Stands Still is a play with great range, layered with beautiful and honest insight into something as large-scale as war—and something as small as the conversations had at our kitchen tables.
This is what a great play does. It forces us to step back, clean off our lenses and refocus, often revealing something essentially and astonishingly different about ourselves, the world and the way we interpret it.
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