BWW Reviews: Main Street Theater's TIME STANDS STILL is Interesting, but Needs Clear Focus
Donald Margulies, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play DINNER WITH FRIENDS, has a lot to say about modern life in his 2009 drama TIME STANDS STILL. The multifaceted piece pins a savvy photojournalist against desires to start a family and leaves her questioning the true impact of her work. Likewise, the skillful acting that occurs on the stage at Main Street Theater - Rice Village leaves the audience with plenty to think and talk about on the car ride home.
TIME STANDS STILL first opened on Broadway in a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, where it enjoyed a sold-out run. After a few months of hiatus, the drama reopened at the Cort Theater. The play received positive reviews and was even nominated for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. The play is about the struggles that Sarah Goodwin faces upon returning home to Williamsburg, Brooklyn from photographing war-torn Iraq. Over the months it takes her body to heal from a roadside bombing, she is bombarded with the disparate ideals of settling down and starting a family or continuing to pursue her dangerous profession in hopes that it makes a positive change in the world. The values of modern femininity and domesticity are called into question, as is the true value of her profession. Do her powerful and gut wrenching images affect change or do they allow Americans to feel pity and empathy only to quell guilt feelings brought on by inaction?
Without the aide of Laura Linney and Brian d'Arcy James in the lead roles, the production in Houston allows the flaws in Donald Margulies writing, which were discussed in the New York reviews, to be more intrusive in the audience's experience. While the cast performs capably and creates intriguing characters for the audience to enjoy, we are also keen to the scripts lack of focus. Donald Margulies posits interesting questions and has crafted a conceptually sound scenario around them to address these modern problems. Unfortunately, his writing seems to touch on a few too many issues and never seems to fully settle on what he really wants to say. Instead, he gives the audience a buffet of topics to mull over in a piece that feels like it could benefit from being sharpened and cut to a 90 minute one-act. This change would probably allow the play to truly let the audience feel something and be viscerally affected by the piece.
Direction by Steve Garfinkel pulls the audience into the piece and holds our interest for the duration of the production. The heavy material never feels forced, even when maudlin lines like "War was my parents' house all over again, only on a different scale" are delivered. The composite sketches of modern Americans that each character represents are made personable, as we can identify with or recognize others we know in each persona on the stage. Likewise, their conflicts are reflections of debates we have previously had or have heard.
In this production, the evening belongs to Sara Gaston, who leads the show as Sarah Goodwin. Her injuries, which leave her limping and disfigured at the beginning of the show, serve as a cautionary warning about the dangers of her job. Yet, she is not ready to throw in the towel. Recuperation cannot come fast enough, as she longs to return to the front lines and shoot more evocative photographs of human misery and suffering. These desires become entangled with her quest for "normalcy" as well, and she is faced with the conflict of choosing between her profession and settling down with her boyfriend James Dodd, a journalist who suffered some sort of breakdown in Iraq and returned home a few weeks before she was injured in the bombing.
In Sarah Goodwin, Sara Gaston masterfully creates a woman that has seen devastation up close, which has left her with an almost impenetrable steely demeanor. She is numbed to the tragedies of the world and clashes with her ex-flame Richard Ehrlich's new and much younger girlfriend, Mandy Bloom. Mandy's idealism and aura of joyful happiness does get under her skin, allowing Sara Gaston to create a beautiful, dramatic moment for her monologue about photographing the bombing of a marketplace. In this moment, which is the play's most powerful, Sara Gaston caustically peels back layers of her character, letting the audience come face to face with the moral ambiguities of journalists' role in covering the world's carnage.
Lisa Villegas makes Mandy Bloom delightful in the right ways. In the middle of her first scene, she excuses herself to the bathroom and Sarah Goodwin and James Dodd lampoon her by calling her "adorable" and "darling." The audience cannot help but agree with their assessment; however, her sparkling and non-jaded views of the world give the piece its power. In Mandy Bloom's ideological clashes with Sarah Godwin, Lisa Villegas capably brings to life the sunny disposition of American idealism and its Pollyanna view of the world.
As James Dodd, Seán Patrick Judge creates a man who has been shattered by experiencing the atrocities of war first hand. Having returned to America, he finds himself questioning what is the use of covering the misery of others if the pieces just get cut down or even sidelined for coverage of celebrities. Also, when he sees how comfortable Richard and Mandy make each other's lives, he begins to long for a relationship turned marriage and family.
Jack Young's Richard Ehrlich is a supportive friend for both Sarah Goodwin and James Dodd; however, he hopes to convince both to settle in New York City and begin a new, more peaceful life working in their home country.
Set Design by Jodi Bobrovsky creates a beautiful and artsy Brooklyn loft that I would gladly call home. It has an open design; no walls separate the kitchen from the bedroom and living room. Moreover, the space is decorated with art from all over the world, which indicates how worldly the central couple is and serves to empower Donald Margulies questions in the script about othering and how that in itself is a form of racism.
Even with the flaws in the writing, TIME STANDS STILL is a piece of theatre that packs a punch. Donald Margulies uses a gradual build, making much of the first act feel like it is not climbing toward a climax at all. Conversely, the second act hits the ground running and offers several explosive and enthralling moments in quick succession. Furthermore, Houston's hometown talent is well utilized by this piece and ensures that everyone leaves changed in some way.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 55 minutes with one intermission.
TIME STANDS STILL, produced by Main Street Theater, runs at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard, Houston 77005 now through April 19, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.mainstreettheater.com/home.html or call (713) 524-6706.
Photos courtesy of Main Street Theater.
Sara Gaston as Sarah Goodwin.