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BWW Review: Riveting Joanna Sycz in Jobsite Theater's TIME STANDS STILL at the Shimberg Playhouse

This year has been a high watermark for local actresses. Look at this amazing array of performances I have seen by our area's very best: Sarah McAvoy in freeFall's Our Town, Erica Sutherlin in Stageworks' In the Blood, Janis Stevens in 4000 Miles at American Stage, Melissa Minyard and Kelly Pekar in The Light in the Piazza at freeFall, Emilia Sargent and Caroline Jett in Tampa Rep's Silent Sky, and Rosemary Orlando in Stageworks' Broadway Bound, to name just a handful. That's quite a litany of incredible performances, each one leaving a lasting mark on me, each one still being talked about months after the various shows have ended. Add to that list the incredible work of Joanna Sycz in Jobsite Theater's latest, Donald Margulies' TIME STANDS STILL, and we have quite a year of performances to celebrate.

Sycz plays Sarah, a photo-journalist who almost died in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. It's months later, and she's back in Brooklyn with her live-in boyfriend, undergoing physical therapy, struggling to walk with the help of a crutch and emotionally dealing with her horribly scarred face. This is as juicy a part that any actress worth her salt would pray to tackle, and Sycz more than lives up to it. She is strong, determined, vulnerable, passionate, supremely intelligent. She runs every emotional gamut without ever going to the easy, sentimental route. She is not emotive for emotion's sake; she is reacting to the world around her, her beliefs, her past, her present injuries, and her realistic view of her future. It's a courageous, gut-wrenching, real-as-real-can-get performance, the type you wait all year to see.

As her significant other, a journalist named James, David Jenkins (Jobsite's artistic director) is quite striking and is able to aptly play the emotional ping pong match with Sycz's Sarah and keep up with her. It's not as showy a role, and sometimes a bit thankless, but Jenkins is so alive onstage, so entertaining to watch (even, sadly, in his agony), that he is a perfect foil for Sarah's dosage of reality. He wants to escape in film-talk, alluding to classic movies constantly and wanting to write about them so as not to face the horrors of the war he has covered and the reminder of that war in his wife's face. His precise retelling of the plot of Days of Wine and Roses perfectly encapsulates the lovers' precarious situation. Can marriage heal both Sarah and James? Can they overcome all of the issues that arise, including a stab at a domestic life, or are they too restless and want to go back to another part of the world, addicted to the adrenaline-rush of covering war?

Their conflicted relationship is one of most realistic portrayed in modern drama.

As Richard, a photo editor friend of James and Sarah's, Brian Shea once again proves why he is one of our local treasures. No one plays hilarious discomfort as well as he does. It's a tour de force in the art of awkwardness. He also doesn't overdo his early moments, the shock of seeing the scarred Sarah and not being able to look at her for very long, which she calls attention to. We understand his squirminess and can empathize. And his relationship with a much younger woman is dealt with in ways that aren't cliché.

As the fourth and final member of the cast, the immensely watchable Maggie Mularz really takes the stage as Mandy, a young lady half the age of the other characters. She resembles a walking, talking Dawn doll, and is a quirky, much-younger outsider (she reminds me of Meg Tilley's clueless Chloe in The Big Chill). Some of the most potent humor in the show stems from her wide-eyed wonder. Mularz plays the humor, but we also see a seriousness in her, a willingness to learn and stand by her beliefs. She's (thankfully) not just comic relief.

My one qualm with the acting in this production is that, in a few instances, some of the cast members decide to stand downstage facing the audience with their backs to the other cast members, telling certain monologues while staring straight out into space. I know this is used to underline key ideas, but it is unnecessary. The affect of these false moments comes across as stagey, not organic. (The staging is otherwise stellar.) Sometimes you want the actors to simply trust the material and just talk to one another; they don't need this ham-fisted artifice. Just talk, squabble, look at one another, be real. That's all. This isn't Strange Interlude.

The music selections between scenes also didn't work for me. They were either too obvious ("A Day in the Life") or too loud for their own good ("Cochise"); none of the songs added anything to the show.

Director Summer Bohnenkamp guides the production quite remarkably, with the exception of the few aforementioned face-the-audience instances. The acting is uniformly fine, a dream quartet under Bohnenkamp's keen eye. The set and lighting, by local wizard Brian Smallheer, is one of the best of the year in any theater. It's an incredible piece of work, with bedroom area, living room, kitchen, and a window with NYC in daylight and nighttime. Rylee Starr Cherry and Camryn Herr are responsible for the make-up on Sycz's face, and the result is horribly effective and real. Thankfully, as Sarah gets better, we get to see her wounds slowly dissipate. It's extremely well done.

Donald Margulies' spot-on script is one of the most intelligent of the past few years. It really brings to the surface some very important issues, and the heated discussion between Sarah and Mandy in Act 1, questioning where we draw the line between humanity and reporting, was debated long after the show. Their dialogue went from characters onstage to audience members outside, which is the best compliment I can give TIME STANDS STILL.

This is the last Jobsite show of the season, and so they end it with a proverbial bang. It has it all: Powerhouse performances, a provocative script, incredible set and make-up, and an important theme brought to life with intelligence and empathy. It's one hell of a strong show. And when you leave the theater, you replay the scenes, the debates, the meanings, in your head. You also can't shake Sycz's riveting performance. It stays with you, and like viewing photographs of war, her work ultimately leaves you haunted.

TIME STANDS STILL plays at the Shimberg Playhouse (at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts) until July 31st. For tickets, please call (813) 229-STAR.

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From This Author Peter Nason