Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Time Stands Still
See Richard's review of Daddy Long Legs
Donald Margulies' play about two war correspondents shipped back home to New York looks, at first glance, like a possible sitcom: the trendy apartment on the New Jewish Theatre stage is also equipped with a visiting magazine editor and his glittering young lover. The lead actors could initially pass for a normal young couple in some light fish-out-of-water story. But there's something orthogonal about these two journalists, not parallel to most of our lives, after years covering one foreign war after another. Even as the visual elements scream safety and superficiality, the pre-show music by Philip Glass warns us of impending complexity. In Time Stands Still the cutting direction will be unexpected.
There's a lot of subtle investigation during the course of this two-hour drama which premiered in 2009 in Los Angeles before a Broadway production the following year, with a mostly new cast, was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award: Is there something inherently cartoonish about American life, to the rest of the world? Are we too eager to handle serious issues in a lighthearted way? And can all the opposites be equally true as well? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks to director Doug Finlayson. He guides us, most of the time, into knowing exactly what's about to happen a few seconds before it does. Except when it doesn't.
Wendy Renée Greenwood manages to be touching and heartfelt underneath an invisible layer of emotional Kevlar and a war photographer's unblinking stare. And boyish Ben Nordstrom, as her lover of the last eight years, is already struggling over his own return to the easy life, away from the battlefield. He's six months ahead of her in this "coming home" process, as she'd been in a medically induced coma. But at least it seems to be a good sign that their discussions, and even their occasional throwing of crutches or banging on furniture, couldn't exist in so much blazing honesty and spontaneity without some love between them.
The crutches make their entrance along with Sarah at the top. James gently ferries her into their Brooklyn apartment more than six months after an explosion that instantly killed her local translator in Yemen (or Iraq, or Sudan, or Syria, I get confused on this point). But much of the first act just shows how painstakingly they are used to trying to keep each other alive: merely persuading Sarah to take a drink of any kind of liquid actually plays here as if James were talking her back from the ledge of a building. Each of their identities is suddenly dying. And how can a love that blossomed in Iraq or Sudan transplant into all this safety and stability?
In that sense, Time Stands Still is about the death of idealism, and the end of facing up to hard truths, or the end of being alive with violent death just inches away. Can either of them give up the thrill of righteousness that comes with confronting pure evil every day? Like Arthur Miller, playwright Margulies turns this ephemeral idea into a harsh god, and Sarah and James must dance around it till they drop.
We too dance around the obelisks of "home" and homecoming in Time Stands Still. Meanwhile, on stage, the characters develop a respect of each other's various invisible shrines. And when the time comes, they simply exitsliding past one another as easily as colored panes of glass, skimmed away in silence. The tints and shades they'd combined to create, one on top of another, sadly glide out of existence.
Actor Jerry Vogel, always deeply iconic on stage, and a founding member of the legendary Theater Project Company of St. Louis, plays Sarah's photo editor Richard with a light touch here, carefully finding the balance between Sarah's artistry and Richard's deadlines. And Eileen Engel is his very American young girlfriendwho, in this modern sensibility, is shown in surprising 3-D, with insights of her own (though they are extrapolated from a much narrower perspective). In a recent production of Steel Magnolias, the actress built up Shelby's sunny outlook into a kind of horrifying madness. And now, just as Sarah tries to end James' fascination with horror movies (which may be the phantom limb of his bygone war days), Ms. Engel's winning smile gently slays overwhelming idealism.
Plato once said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." But (thousands of years later) presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan suggested that, in Ronald Reagan's own charmed case, the unexamined life suddenly seemed very much worth living. As this play ends, we are left with the beautiful pain of indecision.
New Jewish Theatre's Time Stands Still, through April 14, 2019, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Dr., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org..
The Players (in speaking order):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association