“I live off the suffering of strangers,” reflects Sarah Goodwin, a wartime photographer and the lead character in Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, which is produced by New Light Theater Project and running at 13th Street Repertory Company. After being injured by a roadside bomb on assignment in Iraq, Sarah’s boyfriend James brings her home to their Brooklyn apartment. James is also a wartime correspondent in Iraq, but he suffered a mental collapse and returned home weeks prior to Sarah’s near-death experience.
Sarah (Nancy Nagrant) and James (John Long) have made their careers reporting wartime atrocities to Western audiences and struggle with the tension between the real suffering they have witnessed from people they have come to know and, in some cases, love, and the reduction of that suffering for consumption by a mass audience alongside advertising and Hollywood gossip. When the play opens, James has reached his breaking point, and spends his days replacing the real horror of war with the cheap terror of kitschy horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all under the pretext of academic analysis of the cultural anxieties these horror movies reveal. When James explains his threadbare theory to Sarah, she dismisses it as insignificant compared to the gravity of wartime journalism, unable to see that these movies are cathartic to James, giving him a safe place to heal. Unlike James, Sarah has not yet reached her breaking point, and maybe never will. She grapples with the idea of living a more conventional life and even accepts James’ marriage proposal, replacing the danger of wartime journalism with covering issues in a local women’s prison. But ultimately, the addictively high stakes of war prevails, and the couple’s relationship buckles beneath the strain of deciding between the two very different lives they want to lead.
Under the capable direction of Jerry Heymann and the first-rate set design of Brian Dudkiewicz, the interior life of the narrative is compelling, and Heymann gives the play’s opening moments between Sarah and James upon their return from Iraq a generous pace, building an intimacy between the characters and the audience. Nagrant and Long establish a lived authenticity and love between these two characters, which exists alongside the heaviness of the trauma they have survived, both individually and as a couple. Nagrant brings great attention to the physicality of Sarah’s injuries, showing an independent woman’s struggle to rely on others through her recovery. Unfortunately, at times, the same pace and attention was not given to moments of betrayal and heartbreak between the couple, which felt rushed and disconnected.
The tension between Sarah and James is eased and explained by scenes with their friend and editor, Richard, played energetically and compassionately by Ross DeGraw, and his new, much younger girlfriend Mandy (Assol Abdullina). While Mandy initially comes across as a caricature, Abdullina gives her a guileless quality that can make her seem like the bearer of simple truths next to the sometimes self-important Sarah and James.
An impressive staging of one of Margulies’ finest and most thought-provoking dramas. There is no time like the present to visit the historic 13th Street Repertory Theater for a night of great theatre.