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‘Time Stands Still’ in AmblerBY: Steve Cohen 02.25.2012
What’s a journalist’s first duty— to report the atrocities she witnesses, or to try to prevent them? At a time when journalists are dying in Syria, it’s a timely question. It’s also relevant even for theater critics.
Time Stands Still. By Donald Margulies; Bud Martin directed. Delaware Theater Company production through March 11, 2012 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler St., Ambler, Pa. (215) 654-0200 or www.act2.org.
Bearing witness vs. getting involvedSTEVE COHEN
Donald Margulies is a masterful writer. In plays like Collected Stories (about the exploitative aspect of biographical writing), Dinner With Friends, The Model Apartment and The Loman Family Picnic (a drama that includes a musical parody of Death of a Salesman), his characters speak like real people. Of his many fine plays, Time Stands Still is the most troubling.
This is a drama about two smart people who love each other but who move in conflicting directions. Their story is interlaced with a broader struggle.
The story centers on Sarah, an obsessed and frustrated photojournalist in her early 40s (played here excellently by Susan McKey), who is recuperating with a shattered leg and facial scars from wounds suffered while covering war in the Middle East. The subject clearly is timely: On the play’s opening day in Ambler, the photojournalist Remi Ochlik and CNN reporter Marie Colvin died in a Syrian bomb explosion.
Sarah’s longtime boyfriend James (a warm and touching Kevin Kelly), cared for her during her hospitalization and was himself wounded psychologically by his exposure to battle. He was once an adventurous reporter who thrived on dangerous work, but now he yearns for a normal life where he can nurture Sarah.
She can’t abide that idea. James feels guilt over his inability to protect Sarah, and jealousy because she seems to love her job— and oppressed people— more than she loves him. These feelings turn to rage in an emotional scene in the second act.
They are joined by Richard, Sarah’s former flame and mentor who is the photo editor at a magazine (Bruce Graham), and by Richard’s new, much younger and shallow girlfriend Mandy (Megan McDermott), who provides dramatic contrast— she’s the least-interesting character I’ve seen in any Margulies play.
The play was performed for the past two seasons by the Manhattan Theatre Company, where one of the co-producers was Bud Martin. Martin has directed this mounting with nice natural detail for the Delaware Theater Company and Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where Martin is the artistic director.
Dirk Durossette designed the realistic one-room loft apartment, which reflected its tenant’s wide travels and limited budget.
Sarah is a woman who uses her camera as a shield to distance herself from the horror even when victims’ blood splashes onto her lens. She is dedicated to observing and recording. Change may come, she rationalizes, when the rest of the world becomes informed. That day, of course, will come too late to help the people who die in front of her.
The play’s most dramatic scene occurs when Sarah is asked to explain why she took photos of dying children but showed no feelings for the people in her frame.
Sarah replies that it’s her job to publicize what’s happening, not to change anything. “The boy would have died no matter what I did,” she reasons. “And I wouldn’t have gotten the picture. I was helping. I was gathering evidence to show the world.”
I see a slight parallel here with my own work. We critics feel a responsibility to inform readers without regard for the feelings of the performers we write about. A major difference is that our subjects have presented themselves publicly, for profit, and are thus fair game, while a wounded civilian in a war zone hasn’t asked for exposure.
On the second night of this run, I met the Inquirer’s war photographer David Swanson, who talked about his own experiences. He remembered touching parts of human bodies, then having his colleagues say, “We’re hungry” and going to dinner. And he said he still has panic attacks back in Philadelphia when he smells gasoline or hears the squeal of a car’s tires.
When I asked what’s the point of his job, Swanson replied, “How else would anyone know about what happens?” Reflecting on the charge that photographers refuse to get involved, Swanson said: “The military never tells a family how their son died; I do.”
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