Time might remain frozen in photographs. But in real life it marches on, with nothing ever remaining quite as it was. Change, whether radical or gradual, is the great uprooting constant in life. And change is the name of the game for the four characters in Donald Margulies’ very grown-up play, “Time Stands Still,” now in a post-Broadway debut at Steppenwolf Theatre, in a production solidly directed by Austin Pendleton.
Photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Sally Murphy) and writer James Dodd (Randall Newsome) have been a couple, though never married, for more than eight years, spending most of that time following the bloodiest and most corrosive wars, most recently in the Middle East.
Sarah, closing in on early middle age, is an elite, high-profile practitioner of her craft who clearly is intensely addicted to the adrenaline high that comes with the danger, risk and survival skills involved in her job. As former (real-life) war correspondent Chris Hedges put it in the title of his book on the subject, she has come to believe that “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” She is wedded to the belief that she can make a difference through her work, but not entirely free of nagging guilt about her “use” of other people’s misery.
James is a reporter who collaborated closely with Sarah, but a particularly horrific incident he was covering threw him into breakdown mode, and he returned home. Shortly afterward, Sarah, driving through Iraq with Tariq, her “fixer” (a journalist’s local guide and translator), was hit by a roadside bomb and gravely injured. As the play opens, James has just brought her home to their shared Brooklyn loft (Walt Spangler’s set is a model of lived-in photorealism) after a long hospitalization in Germany. And before she even hits the bed she is hugging her laptop and cameras, and wondering how she will get back to work.
Paying a visit to the couple are Richard Ehrlich (Francis Guinan), their longtime editor (and Sarah’s long-ago lover, who has remained a good friend). In late middle age, he now is accommodating the realities of celebrity-driven journalism, and more crucially, he is under the spell of the devoted Mandy Bloom (Kristina Valada-Viars), an attractive young events planner who easily could be his daughter, and who Sarah describes as “embryonic.”
If Sarah is half in love with death, Mandy is the youthful, buoyant life force. And her relationship with Richard, as well as her eventual pregnancy, sets something off in James, particularly as it becomes clear that Sarah is not made for settling down.
Margulies is a supremely intelligent writer with a strong playbook of themes and a sophisticated outlook rooted in the tension between middle-class American values and a more worldly, bohemian way of life. And while “Time Stands Still” can seem a little too neatly constructed as a sounding board for all the needed arguments and transitions, it is deeply rooted in truth. The actors are well-cast, with Murphy aptly taut, angry, defensive and ferociously determined, Dodd convincingly burnt out and in search of a more comfortable life, and Guinan fully contented with the new lightness in his existence. Perhaps best of all is the leggy, Forever 21-outfitted Valada-Viars, who endows Mandy with an instinctual intelligence and warmth that has nothing to do with education or ambition.
In recent years, as record numbers of war correspondents have died or suffered grave injuries, much also has been debated about their impact. Does media presence illuminate the situation or too often serve as a catalyst for chaos? Meanwhile, a growing corps of ordinary people with cellphone cameras have grabbed the spotlight – just one more indication of how things can change.