Mikhael Farah and Autumn Shiley play James and Sarah, who return from covering conflicts in the Middle East.
Donald Margulies’ play Time Stands Still is a particularly relevant meditation on horrific violence and the feelings of the transfixed viewer who is unable to process it, endure it, and ultimately stop it. In Madison Theatre Guild’s nuanced and smartly rendered production, running through Jan. 28 at the Bartell Theatre, the four characters we meet are all dealing with feelings of outrage and helplessness as they are confronted with violent realities in war zones in the Middle East. Their ability to connect or disconnect with those images and the people behind them will drive one couple together and tear another apart.
As the play opens, James (Mikhael Farah), a hip 30-something journalist brings his longtime girlfriend, Sarah, back to their apartment to recover from injuries she received as a photographer in a volatile part of Iraq. The victim of a roadside bomb that killed her “fixer,” Sarah (Autumn Shiley) limps around on crutches, one side of her face riddled with shrapnel, as she chafes at the time it will take for her physical recovery. Shaken by his own horrific memories as a foreign correspondent, James nurses her back to health and tries to assuage his guilt about coming home from his assignment early after suffering a mental breakdown. The couple is welcomed back to the U.S. by Sarah’s old friend and photo editor Richard (Mark Snowden) and his new love Mandy (Emmaline Friederichs), a supremely un-cynical and naïve woman half his age.
Over the course of Sarah’s convalescence, the characters take stock of their lives and the responsibility they each bear to expose the horrors of war to the masses.
Farah and Shiley are outstanding as a couple at a crossroads, personally and professionally. They talk over each other and comfort each other with a well-worn familiarity, so when they engage in difficult conversations about their future, the stakes seem high and very real. Both actors cover a broad emotional range in their roles and are adept at painting pictures of war for the audience that are evocative and visceral.
As Richard, Mark Snowden walks a difficult line: He cares deeply for Sarah and James, but the economic realities of running a magazine mean he commodifies the suffering that his friends record. Tired of contemplating larger questions about responsibility and morality, he retreats into his relationship with Mandy, whose world is uncluttered with such moral conundrums. Conscious of his midlife crisis and trying to embrace a life of simple pleasures, Snowden plays Richard convincingly as a tired pragmatist.
Friederichs brings a surprising amount of life to the throw-away role of Mandy, whose simplistic world view stands in stark contrast to the three media colleagues. Her connection to her infant daughter at the end of the play is particularly moving, especially because it is an emotional experience the others cannot understand.
The play veers off track momentarily at the top of the second act with a hyper-meta conversation complaining about the complacent liberals who go to see bad theater about political oppression and pat themselves on the back for being so well-informed, but it quickly comes back to more character-driven dialogue.
While the conflicts and emotional arcs in each scene are deftly directed by John Siewert, his blocking on the wide set is overly complicated. It’s exhausting watching actors in motion almost constantly, and particularly incongruous for Sarah, who is supposed to be recovering from severe injuries.
David Heuer’s set design is a convincingly cool Brooklyn apartment, complete with an exposed wood wall and furniture that looks like it came from Pottery Barn. Viktor Patterson’s sound design is significantly less seamless, using an eclectic variety of well-known songs from the 1960s to the present to underscore the play’s themes with the subtlety of a jackhammer.
Margulies characterized Time Stands Still as a play that “captures a sense of the way we live now, dramatizing the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with.” The struggles certainly remain, as we see images of Syrian refugees and other world conflicts daily on the news and wonder how best to respond. Perhaps seeing this excellent production is a good first step.