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 being given a mostly satisfying production at San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre under Patrick Vest’s solid direction.

10426811_10152208904681373_4147675842416804803_n Sarah (Karen Harrison) and James (Richard Perloff) are a pair—and couple—of 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 Little Fish, the roles have been cast a decade or so older than Margulies has written them, which throws things off a bit.)

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.

10590622_10152208908261373_655523453895205110_n The couple’s best friend Richard (Tony Cicchetti), 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 much-younger event planner Mandy (Dana Pollak).

Mandy is a far cry from Richard’s ex, the dour Astrid. Adorable and 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, her reasoning being that balloons may shrivel up, but at least they don’t die. (That’s Mandy in a nutshell.)

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, informing him dryly, “I think it’s sweet. You always wanted a little girl.”

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, and this is just the start of the many surprises Time Stands Still holds in store.

In fact, 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.

10599574_10152208904986373_3725385993225570163_n First and foremost is Sarah, a woman who’s spent her adult life on the front lines of war zones and can’t live without them. Harrison gives us Sarah’s grit, but she could dig deeper to reveal her fears and vulnerability.

Perloff does very good work as James, an outwardly strong man who’s begun to crumble inside from the stress of war and the discovery of a secret given away by a single, singular pronoun.

Time Stands Still reunites Perloff with Cicchetti and Pollak, his Chapter Two costars, and it’s a treat seeing the actors who played the Neil Simon gem’s “B couple” back onstage together in a new romantic relationship.

Though too young-looking for Richard’s 55, Cicchetti brings good humor and flair to the role of a man who has experienced James and Sarah’s lives from the relative safety of the newsroom and now finds himself blissfully smitten with the proverbial “breath of fresh air.”

984179_10152208905126373_4894968440531318420_n Last but most definitely not least is cast standout Pollak, giving the evening’s freshest, most nuanced performance as Mandy, a young woman whose apparent cluelessness hides considerable savvy and depth.

Scenic designer Chris Beyries’s set turns audiences in Little Fish’s very intimate space into flies on two of Sarah and James’ loft’s four walls, though it lacks the years of accumulated clutter that a higher budgeted production could provide despite props mistress Ashley Smith’s wall photos and knickknacs. Darrell Clark’s lighting is first-rate as are Paige Dovolis’s costumes, and between-scenes projections of Sarah’s photographs are a nice touch as well. Most evocative of all is Stephanie Coltrin’s sound design, which makes particularly effective use of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Tom Waits’ gravely pipes.

Time Stands Still is produced by Tara Donovan. Teresa Stirewalt is stage manager.

In plays as diverse as Shipwrecked!, Dinner With Friends, Collected Stories, Sight Unseen, and a pair of recent Geffen Playhouse premieres Coney Island Christmas and The Country House, Donald Margulies has proven himself one of our premier contemporary playwrights.

Though not as thrilling as its World Premiere at the Geffen or as flawless as its more recent incarnation at the Chance, Little Fish’s intimate South Bay production offers audiences a still powerful introduction to one of Margulies’ finest.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro. Through September 6. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sunday August 24 at 2:00. Thursday Reservations: 310 512-6030

–Steven Stanley
August 8, 2014

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