A wounded photo-journalist’s return home from the war zone proves even more challenging than a life lived on the edge in Donald Margulies’ intelligent, perceptive, often funny, always compelling Time Stands Still, now getting a superb Orange County Premiere at Anaheim’s Chance Theater with crackerjack director Marya Mazor assuredly at the helm.
Jennifer Ruckman and Brandon Sean Pearson star as Sarah and James, a pair—and couple—of 30something expats who’ve made their lives covering wars, famine, and genocide in the fire kegs you see on the nightly news, most recently in the Middle East.
At lights up, Sarah has just been sent home to recover from a roadside bomb that killed her “fixer” (i.e. interpreter, driver, friend, etc.) Tariq and left her with “broken bones and a head full of shrapnel.”
Welcoming her back to their Brooklyn loft is James who, it turns out, was back in the States at the time of the attack, the victim of a nervous breakdown brought on by the horrors of what he witnessed over there.
Despite a crutch, an arm sling, and a walking cast on one leg, Sarah seems to be on the road to recovery. James too appears to be getting better—except for the recurring nightmares in which he sees Sarah and Tariq in their bombed vehicle and worries that he let both his wife and himself down by not having been there for her at the time.
Today is not a day for reliving painful memories, however.
The couple’s best friend Richard (Mike Martin), photo editor for the Vanity Fair-like magazine which prints both Sarah’s pictures and James’ stories, has come by with his new girlfriend, the decades-younger event planner Mandy (Elena Murray).
Mandy is a far cry from Richard’s ex, the dour Astrid. Half Richard’s age and adorable slash slightly ditsy, Mandy has arrived at James and Sarah’s bearing a pair of Mylar balloons, one saying Welcome Home and the other Get Well. (Not knowing which was more appropriate, she’s gone with both, reasoning that balloons are a better gift than flowers, which end up dying, though admittedly the balloons do tend to shrivel up as they lose air.)
Although James may likely envy Richard this breath of youth and fresh air in his life, Sarah is none too pleased with his choice of girlfriends, and if she can’t come out and speak her mind, remarks like “I think it’s sweet. You always wanted a little girl” leave no doubt about Sarah’s real feelings.
More important than his friends’ reaction to Mandy is Richard’s shock at learning that Sarah and James are planning to return to the Middle East following Sarah’s recovery. Do these two have a death wish? No, replies Sarah. Wars abroad are no different from the war zone she grew up in in her parents’ house, “just on a different scale.” As for Mandy, the young thing can’t understand how Sarah can take pictures of wounded children and not want to help them. “You’re letting them die,” she protests, though Sarah replies that she is helping them by telling the world about them. “The camera’s there to record life,” she tells Mandy, “not to change it.”
Richard’s news that Mandy is pregnant, followed immediately by their wedding announcement, comes as a bit of a shock to Sarah. James’ sudden “Will you marry me, Sarah?” is even more out of the blue, though his reasons are practical rather than romantic: When Sarah was hospitalized, as her boyfriend he had no rights whatsoever. Only a marriage license can prevent this from happening again.
Anyone who thinks that a double wedding will soon take place and that the two couples will live happily ever after had better guess again, since one of the best things about Time Stands Still is its unpredictability, that and the richness of Margulies’ writing and the fully three-dimensional characters he has created.
Foremost among them is Sarah, a role that could have been written with Chance resident artist Ruckman in mind. The multiple Scenie winner (including one as Best Lead Actress in the Chance’s Rabbit Hole) excels as playing complex female characters like Sarah, whose attractive, womanly exterior masks a core of steel beneath, someone who’s spent her adult life on the front lines of war zones and can’t live without them. As Sarah, Ruckman gives her best, most deeply felt, multi-layered performance since Rabbit Hole, work matched by her expert trio of costars.
Pearson so vanishes into the characters he plays that you might not recognize him as the Chance Theater regular who’s played homeless twice—in Welcome Home Jenny Sutter (opposite Ruckman) and in Overlooked—and multiple characters (including hate-spewing Matthew Shepard murderer Aaron McKinney) in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Pearson could not be more compelling as James, an outwardly strong man who’s begun to crumble inside from the stress of war and the discovery of a secret his wife has inadvertently given away with a single pronoun.
Martin, though not quite grayed enough to pass for Richard’s fifty-five, is terrific too as a man who has experienced James and Sarah’s lives from the relative safety of the newsroom, though this work environment has offered its own challenges. Martin paints a rich portrait of an all-around good guy now blissfully smitten with someone offering a less complex, less fraught relationship than the one he had with his astringent ex.
The evening’s biggest surprise (and the play’s as well) is Mandy, a newly blonde Murray proving an absolute revelation as a young woman whose apparent cluelessness hides considerable savvy and depth. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the role was originated by Clueless star Alicia Silverstone.) The delicious Murray gives us a character who can exclaim in all sincerity, “Sometimes we work pro bono for charities? That means we do it for nothing,” to people who were probably saying “pro bono” when she was still in grade school. Mandy is not to be taken lightly however, as when she insists that she is not “Richard’s midlife crisis. This is not a passing ‘thing,’ okay?” and we believe her.
Time Stands Still looks every bit as splendid scaled down to Chance Theater dimensions as it did on the full-sized Geffen Playhouse stage a few years back. Three-time Scenie-winning scenic designer Bradley Kaye has given Richard and Sarah a minutely detailed Brooklyn loft to call their home away from battle, with its years of accumulated clutter a collaborative effort of Kaye and props designer Daniel Bravo. Pablo Santiago’s dramatic lighting design works to perfection, including during director Mazor’s deliberately fluid scene changes. Ryan Brodkin’s sound design (both music and effects) ups the dramatic ante considerably. Eunnym Cho’s costumes prove an ideal fit for each character. Make-up artist Robin “George” Shorter makes us believe in Sarah’s facial scars.
Tod & Linda White are executive producers. Mariann Papadopoulos is stage manager, Masako Tobaru production manager/technical director, Lillian DeRitter dramaturg, and Stephanie Rodriguez assistant lighting designer.
In plays as diverse as the adventure tale Shipwrecked!, the intimate couples drama Dinner With Friends, the compelling two-hander Collected Stories, the intricately constructed Sight Unseen, and last holiday season’s nostalgic Coney Island Christmas, Donald Margulies has proven himself one of our premier contemporary playwrights. I loved Time Stands Still when it World Premiered at the Geffen early in 2009. Deftly trimmed by about fifteen minutes (it now runs a just-right two hours), Margulies’ most recent smash proves one of the playwright’s very best, and its Orange County Premiere shows off Chance Theater at its very finest.
Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
October 4, 2013
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio