Williamstown Little Theatre
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies
Directed by Ellis Ebell
Performance - Friday 10 July 2015 (Middle week)
Reviewer – Jennifer Paragreen
Time Stands Still is set in a New York loft in 2009 / 2010, a time contemporaneous with its writing. In a sense time has stood still with the background situation of wars and bombings in the Middle East and extreme poverty in Africa being still very much part of the current landscape, giving it an immediacy which hooks the audience.
The exotic back story of journalistic feats in far flung places ranging from Sierra Leone and the Sudan to Kurdistan, including horrific events in Iraq, is secondary to the exploration of the relationship between photojournalist, Sarah, and her reporter partner, James, combined with some extra insights supplied by the seemingly unlikely pairing of their editor and friend, Richard, and his much younger new partner, Mandy.
Ellis Ebell’s assured direction enabled the audience to appreciate the thought processes, flaws and foibles of the four protagonists and also to consider some of the issues of 21st Century journalism with the dangers of reporting from conflict zones, who gets to choose what will ultimately be reported and whether journalists are merely exploiting “the suffering of strangers”.
The context of the play was intelligently introduced with an evocative opening sequence and sounds of roadside bombings gradually morphing into the noise of New York traffic.
Newly arrived back in New York, Sarah is the dominant character in the play. Pauline Constantine’s performance establishes Sarah as a talented, dedicated and determined careerist used to being in charge of her own destiny even when she is suddenly physically incapacitated by a roadside bomb. Her lustrous voice conveyed her determination to get on with life despite this setback. Almost her first concern on arrival in her loft apartment is “Where are my cameras?” She longs to get the recuperation process over quickly so that she can get back to work. She can be scathing and caustic but there are occasional flashes of tenderness and concern as we hear when she describes her “fixer”, Tariq, to Mandy.
James’ scars and injuries are psychological rather than physical and all the more insidious as a result. He suffered a nervous breakdown after being sprayed with blood and body parts when four innocent girls were gunned down in a market place in Mosul. He was back in America whenSarah was injured and then suffered pangs of conscience that he had left her behind. Tim Constantine plays Jamie with an air of vulnerability as he desperately tries to assuage his guilt and to rekindle the relationship withSarah. Unlike her, he would prefer to settle for a ‘normal’ life, reviewing science fiction movies rather than reporting on war torn countries. Ultimately I had the impression that he needs her more than she needs him. The poignant pauses in their final conversation reek of lost opportunities and the implication that, even though he says he is about to move on, it won’t be easy.
Rowan Howard does a fine job of balancing the various aspects of Richard’spersonality – defending his girlfriend, even when he understands why Sarahand James find her “lightweight”, and simultaneously rejoicing in her enthusiasm. We could also clearly see the conflict in balancing friendship and editorial decisions and the anguish they cause him. As Mandy Stephanie Gonelli is delightfully pert, enthusiastic and bubbly. Her joyful naïvity initially prompts many laughs but later she becomes almost the play’s moral compass as she questions whether journalists should consider helping rather than merely reporting.
Of course it is the conversations between various combinations of the four protagonists which give colour to the play. One of the most effective scenes involved the increasing volume on the discussion with Richard about the placement of James’ article in his magazine while Mandy quietly rinsed dishes off to the side. The stilted conversation in the final scene dripped with sadness.
The play is confined to a single set but David Dare’s compact design and thoughtful set dressing provided us with a kitchenette, living room and double bed as well a front entrance and bathroom door all snugly fitted onto the Little Theatre stage. The angled loft window added an extra area of light which was complemented by two other windows. The kitchen bench sneaked a little more space by having a circular end and featured a fully functioning sink and coffee making facility. Dark turquoise doors on the overhead cupboards melted subtly into the background while several pieces of African memorabilia suggested their travels. Truly symbolic were two lights covered in a pattern resembling film sprockets and, particularly, the huge photographic poster of the blood splattered face of a woman, ostensibly publicity for a 2008 exhibition of Sarah’s work.
Tony Tartaro’s costume design once again really augmented the actors’ characterisation. Mandy’s short red and blue outfit, complete with the dainty little bag was quite at odds with Sarah and James’ much more casual and practical attire and thus served to show how totally out of place they would consider her to be. Praise should also go to the uncredited make-up artist who created Sarah’s Phantom of the Opera look which faded to a reddish blotch in the next scene and who assisted Rowan Howard in credibly adding years to his age to play a 55 year old.
This production of Time Stands Still proved to be both interesting and entertaining with a strong cast supported by skilled and dedicated people working on every aspect of the production. Thank you for providing your audience with something to think about and characters to care about and another fine theatrical event.