Time Stands Still at the Guthrie Theater

Mark Benninghofen, Valeri Mudek, Sarah Agnew and Bill McCallum in Time Stands Still. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Sarah Goodwin, the hero of Donald Margulies‘s often penetrating (and often static) Time Stands Still (at the Guthrie, through May 20), thrives on conflict.  On blood, on insanity, the sudden violence of war.  She has acquired – or so she believes – the photojournalist’s knack for using the camera as a shield to keep horror at bay.  This allows her to forge forward where the sane fear to go: into firefights, recent car bomb explosions, any place where she can capture an indelible (and saleable) image of human suffering.  The play references the great war photographer Robert Capa (killed in Viet Nam, 1954):  “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”  This principle is bred in Ms. Goodwin’s bones.

But something has happened: an IED (improvised explosive device) has killed Sarah’s translator and lover, Tariq, and it has very nearly killed Sarah herself.  She spends 2 weeks in an induced coma as doctors labor mightily to save her life.  They succeed, but at a price: Sarah has serious facial scarring.  Her right arm and leg are immobilized.  She faces a grueling six month recovery.  Her innocuous SO, Jamie Dodd, has spent weeks nursing her and now returns her to their New York loft.

Sarah responds to her injuries as though they were a personal affront: how dare my body not function properly.  One can almost see the sweat beading her forehead as she hobbles to the bathroom, to the sofa.  Her editor at “the magazine,” Richard Ehrlich, visits with his new girlfriend, Mandy.  He wants to publish her photos in book form, with text by Jamie.

Mandy is, imo, the most interesting character in Time Stands Still.  Every scene with her flies.  “How can you hide,” she asks, “behind the camera like that?  Couldn’t you help?”  Sarah replies, “A photographer can’t step into the frame and fix the world.  A photographer only records.”  This heartfelt passion about a photojournalist’s function animates the early part of the play.  It thrills.

The problem occurs when Margulies tries to move the characters beyond this initial fervor.  With the exception of Mandy, whose journey into motherhood is gorgeously rendered, the characters in this piece tend, as the piece proceeds, to pontificate smugly and in contradictory ways.  I didn’t believe, for example, Sarah’s teary “flashback”: “How can I take advantage of her pain?”  Sarah’s abortive marriage to Jamie trivializes their relationship.  Given the style – it’s a static ‘living room’ play – the characters aren’t rich and multi-leveled enough to sustain heightened emotional pitch.  As a result, the play isn’t as involving as it should be.

I am loathe to hold the actors responsible for this.  You would be hard-pressed to identify an actor with more power and presence, more pure luminosity, than the exquisite Sarah Agnew.  But her Sarah Goodwin feels sour, off-putting, petty.  Angry without a visionary counter-balance.    Bill McCallum‘s Jamie is tame, harmless.  As Richard, Mark Benninghofen delivers an amiable and benign performance – but not terribly interesting.  Only Valeri Mudek, working with the tricky character of Mandy, does powerful and affecting work.  These accomplished artists receive little help from director Joe Dowling, whose work on Time Stands Still is fitful and clunky (witness the self-conscious lighting shifts).

It pains me to write this, as I am a longtime Margulean and an ardent Agnew-ite.  I would love to be wrong; see Time Stands Still and decide for yourself.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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