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, back in town now in a production every bit the outstanding equal of Aquila Morong Studio’s previous intimate revivals of Proof and Crimes Of The Heart.

TSS - Prod Still 1 Sarah (Presciliana Esparolini) and James (Aidan Bristow) are a pair—and couple—of 30something expats who’ve made their lives covering wars, famine, and genocide in the far-off 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 a life partner 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 atrocities witnessed in the world’s hottest hot spots.

Despite a crutch, an arm sling, and a walking cast on one leg, Sarah seems headed on the road to recovery. James too appears to be getting better—except for some pesky recurring nightmares in which he sees Sarah and Tariq in their bombed vehicle, prompting worries that he let both his wife and himself down by not having been there for her when she needed him the most.

Today is not a day for reliving painful memories, however.

TSS - Prod Still 2 The couple’s 50ish best friend Richard (Troy Ruptash), 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 (Nik Isbelle), about as far a cry from Richard’s dour ex as two women could be.

Ice queen Astrid would never, for example, have arrived at James and Sarah’s bearing a pair of Mylar balloons in lieu of flowers, the adorable, slightly ditsy Mandy having reasoned that balloons may shrivel up but at least they don’t die.

Although James may well envy Richard this breath of youth and fresh air in his life, Sarah is none too pleased with his choice of girlfriends, her dry “I think it’s sweet. You always wanted a little girl,” speaking volumes about both Sarah and the object of her scorn.

Mandy turns out to be much more than the older woman’s snide remark would indicate, however, and her arrival proves a much-needed alternative to Sarah’s coldly pragmatic take on life. (“You’re letting them die!” protests a distraught Mandy upon seeing photos of wounded children Sarah has opted to “witness” and “document” rather than help.)

More important than his friends’ reaction to his sweet young thing 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 first of many surprises Time Stands Still holds in store.
In fact, one of the best things about Margulies’ play is its unpredictability, that and the richness of his writing and the fully realized characters he has created and which Aquila Morong Studio’s cast of four bring to vivid, deeply felt life under Vicky Jenson’s astute, nuanced direction.

TSS - Prod Still-3 First and foremost is Esparolini’s riveting Sarah, a woman who, having spent the last dozen or so years on the front lines, now finds she can’t live without them. A stunningly three-dimensional Esparolini not only gives us Sarah’s grit and determination but digs deep to reveal her fears and vulnerability, the result of which may well be the actress’s finest work to date.

A dynamic, charismatic Bristow reveals both star quality and stellar acting chops as James, an outwardly strong man who has begun to crumble inside from the stress of war and the discovery of a secret given away by a single, singular pronoun.

Ruptash brings a just-right blend of acerbic humor and slightly grizzled dash to 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 a woman half his age.

As for the character I consider Time Stands Still’s secret stealth weapon, it’s hard to imagine a fresher, richer take on Mandy than the utterly winning Isbelle, the up-and-coming young actress not only giving us a young woman whose apparent cluelessness hides both savvy and depth but acing three of the best-written speeches you’ll hear all year.

Scenic designer Tim Pacaldo has come up with a loft whose lack of accumulated paraphernalia suggests a pair of lives lived far away from home in addition to making effective use of the Secret Rose Theatre’s wider-than-usual stage. Maarten Cornelis’s lighting design is mostly quite effective, the single spot on an empty chair being a particularly nice touch. Shaun Moosekian’s sound design and Craig Richey’s original music add power and punch, some well-chosen costumes completing the production design.

Time Stands Still is produced by Esparolini and Christopher Amitrano. Forrest Lancaster 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 writers.

Aquila Marong Studios’ splendid new Time Stands Still more than does the playwright justice.

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Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 24, 2015
Photos: Dan Warner Photography

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