Fort Worth — Is there life after war, he wonders? Life without bullets, carnage, and the ever-present fear that at any second, you or someone you love might be blown right off the map?
The short answer, of course, should be “yes”—but in Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, a war photographer and her journalist partner/lover come home to discover that the life more ordinary can be a battle all its own.
This thoughtful and emotional area premiere from Amphibian Stage Productions has all the virtues of the Margulies’ style, which puts relationships (couples, friends, families) under the microscope, insisting there are no “small” moments in life. The play is quippy and comical at times, and rings painfully true at some crucial moments. And director Mary Catherine Burke keeps a fine cast of four cooking all through the first act and into the second—though in the end, they’re left a bit flat by Margulies’ own script, which takes on a slightly predictable, pat tone. Of course this will happen, and that, and that.
Yet overall, Time Stands Still is an engaging look at the risks taken and choices made to keep love and meaning in our lives, whether close to home or in the world’s hot spots. One go-round, that’s all we have—and how hard the struggle to fit the many destinies we wish for into that one-to-a-customer existence.
Richard (Jakie Cabe) arrives back home in New York with Sarah (Aleisha Force), who is recovering from serious injuries caused by a roadside bomb in Iraq. (The play is set toward the start of that war.) It’s been months, but Sarah, a widely known photographer, is barely on her feet. The two met covering conflict, and the work is their life: follow the wars, take the pictures, write the stories.
Now they’ve left the war, but the war hasn’t left them. Sarah’s hardshell manner and Richard’s busy mother-henning do a bad job of hiding their inner turmoil and trauma. Sarah’s thoughts literally fill the room, as screen images of her war-zone photos appear and disappear on the walls. She’s in pain, short-tempered with Richard as he tries to care for her. He’s guilty because he wasn’t there.
They spar about when, and how, they’ll get back to work. He thinks of marriage, kids, Disneyland—but Sarah’s darting, haunted eyes are still seeing what happened in Iraq. Both actors are believable and often compelling: Cabe running through a maze of emotions—harassed, loving, guilty—with Force in more of an emotional holding pattern, perpetually on edge and consumed by memories.
Set against their pain and unrest is a second couple, old friend James (Greg Holt), who is also Sarah’s photo editor and long-ago love interest, and his new, much younger girlfriend Mandy (Kelsey Milbourn). Both roles provide comic relief and more: Mandy seems a chirpy airhead, and Holt is spot-on and funny showing us that James is at once delighted and embarrassed by how different she is from their circle. “There’s younger,” snarks Sarah to him when Mandy’s out of hearing. “And there’s embryonic.” But James knows Mandy makes him happy—and in a light and charming performance from Milbourn, she surprises us by being a woman of more substance than we see at first.
Cabe has a natural, easy style onstage that lets us draw close to his character—and we wish only good things for Richard. But Sarah’s role is the heart of Margulies’ story. Force, making her Amphibian debut along with Milbourn, has more than a few fine moments, especially in portraying a woman who guards her innermost heart all too well. Yet Force is a force in the making: she’s not quite there yet, in a part that calls for an actress who’s a true “force of nature” (no pun intended) strong enough to dig deep for the emotions that will sell us on the truth and worth of Sarah’s ultimate choices. Yet it’s a good try at a challenging part.
Time Stands Still is a good-looking production for Amphibian, with Bob Lavallee’s curving Manhattan flat set design made singular by its double use as a screening room for Sarah’s fraught images of war and death. David Lanza adds a memorably pulsing beat to those images that sets our hearts pounding with hers. All life is risk and conflict, Margulies seems to say—and war is just one of the more obvious dangers.