January 12, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Drives and desires

‘Time Stands Still’
Through Feb. 12
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th  Street, NW
$35-$69
202-332-3300

 

In “Time Stands Still” (now at Studio Theatre) playwright Donald Margulies takes us to war zones without ever leaving his characters’ Brooklyn loft.

After being seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, photojournalist Sarah (Holly Twyford) goes home to New York to heal. The angry red scars on her face aren’t her main worry. She’s more concerned about getting back on her feet and returning to the Middle East where she can continue bearing witness with her Nikon. But when Sarah’s reporter boyfriend James (Greg McFadden) asks her to join him in a quieter, safer life (a potential novelty for both), she is forced to consider doing things differently.

Holly Twyford and Greg McFadden in Studio Theatre’s production of ‘Time Stands Still.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Studio)

While Sarah is unparalleled at capturing the difficult images of war, she is less adept at navigating emotional battles on the home front. For years she and James traveled to the world’s most dangerous conflict zones chronicling atrocities, but after James saw one too many civilians blown up in Iraq, he suffered a sort of breakdown and called it quits. Weeks later Sarah was injured.

At home, she resists James’ coddling and feels trapped and bored by domesticity. But she loves him and is in her way very invested in the relationship. She owes it to herself to try and make things work despite having never signed on for a normal life.

Like Margulies’ Pulitzer-winning play “Dinner with Friends,” this newer work’s cast is also comprised of two straight couples. James and Sarah are visited by their worldly editor Richard (Dan Illian) and his much younger new girlfriend Mandy (a delightful Laura C. Harris) who mistakenly thinks jaded, grouchy Sarah might appreciate a tacky bunch of “get well” balloons and a barrage of small talk. An unlikely addition to the sophisticated friends’ longtime circle, Mandy acknowledges that she’s an intellectual lightweight while making it clear that she’s a lot more than Richard’s mid-life crisis.

Mandy also questions Sarah on the ethics of her profession. How can she stand by and photograph death and destruction without somehow intervening or offering some kind of assistance? Sarah responds rather mechanically that photojournalists are there to record life and not to change it; but later in the play, Sarah reconsiders her reply more emotionally, wondering if it’s somehow indecent to make a living from the suffering of others.

Timely, thought provoking and entertaining, Margulies’ nuanced script is wonderfully written. Sarah and James’ pitch-perfect dialogue is subtly infused with affecting and sometimes disturbing references to people they’ve encountered in Iraq, most especially Sarah’s translator and sometime lover Tarek. The play gives a bit of humanity to the tens of thousands of faceless civilian Iraqi casualties about whom Americans seldom hear anything.

Helmed by New York director Susan Fenichell, the thoughtful production is smartly staged and well acted by a splendid cast. On Broadway, Laura Linney created the part of Sarah. At Studio, Twyford (openly gay) makes the role of the brave, witty, complicated woman her own. Twyford’s approach to Sarah’s physicality is particularly memorable — whether she’s walking tentatively on her painfully broken leg or clenching her good hand from the intense anxiety brought on by being away from the action.

Sarah and James’ loft — realistically rendered by John McDermott from its fully functioning kitchen sink to raindrops hitting the skylight — serves as both refuge and starting gate. It’s up to Sarah whether to stay or go.

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