With photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Sally Murphy) as its central character, Time Stands Still has its share of light imagery. Yet one of the most powerful moments in the four-character play at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre unfolds in near darkness. Time Stands Still opens as Sarah, wounded weeks earlier by a roadside bomb in Iraq, makes her way up the final steps to the Brooklyn loft she shares with journalist James (Randall Newsome). Dragging one leg immobilized in a thigh-high cast behind her like a cumbersome piece of luggage, her face in shadows that hide her torn flesh, Sarah can’t be clearly seen, but her agony is audible. Her grunts of pain — and James’ groans as he careens into furniture that should be familiar to him — form a symphony of misery.
But this is a Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends) play, and the playwright quickly pulls in ironic contrapuntal notes to relieve the darkness and pain. His well-educated characters cannot resist dropping witty remarks about the most gruesome of subjects. When Sarah meets Mandy (Kristina Valada-Viars), a young event planner and arm candy for Sarah’s middle-aged photo editor, Richard (Francis Guinan), Sarah tartly chips in: “I guess you could say I’m into events too — war, famine, genocide.”
Not that war is the only subject of Time Stands Still. Margulies says that the play is ultimately a love story: “The domestic, relationship drama is in the foreground — the backdrop is the very specific, high-stakes world of journalists who cover conflict.” It is as much about domestic war as it is about international conflict.
Margulies’ characters rarely stop talking, nor do we want them to. The audience listens to the intentionally overlapping dialogue like eavesdroppers on a particularly juicy conversation about subjects that matter. Is it more important for journalists to bear witness to suffering or to intervene to alleviate it? Is it wrong to want to live a comfortable life in peace when much of the world is at war? Must one’s work have meaning? Can parenthood be as important as work? These issues won’t be resolved during the course of the play. The audience must decide whether to continue the conversation on its own.
Director Austin Pendleton deftly guides the first-rate cast. Pendleton, Goodwin and Guinan are all Steppenwolf ensemble members, and Newsome and Valada-Viars fit right into the Steppenwolf family, with Newsome especially believable and vulnerable as the war-weary James. Sally Murphy’s Sarah can sound flat and aloof at times, but those traits are written into the part. All the actors gracefully navigate the changes through which Margulies propels their characters.
Even before Sarah and James drag themselves into the opening scene, the audience is treated to Walt Spangler’s evocatively detailed set, illuminated by Keith Parham. Costume designer Rachel Anne Healy dresses the cast in clothes that slyly tell their stories.
Time Stands Still takes an intimate look at epic subjects and leaves it to the audience to draw conclusions. Margulies is a chronicler of 21st Century ironies. His characters discuss what to do with Sarah’s beautiful images of carnage and propose a solution right out of Pottery Barn: a coffee table book.
Time Stands Still
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
January 19–May 13, Tuesday through Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.; April 11–May 9, Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m.
Tickets $20 – $78, with rush tickets and student discounts available
Tickets: www.steppenwolf.org or 312-335-1650
Photos: Michael Brosilow