Critic's PickA photojournalist’s image is framed and captured, a moment of high emotion frozen by the camera lens, a distillation of a larger, often tragic event. Today those events, all too often, are scenes of physical and emotional devastation in war-torn nations. In Donald Margulies’ 2009 play, Time Stands Still, we learn that shooting those images generates addictive adrenaline even as it hardens the soul. The Tony Award-nominated show is getting its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati this month.
Sarah Goodwin (Jen Johansen) lives this life, fueled by dashing from one conflict to the next. She and James Dodd (Buz Davis), a writer, came together covering such horrific conflagrations, but he was eventually traumatized by it and retreated to the loft they share in Brooklyn. He now lives in a slower-moving world, writing movie reviews, obsessed with horror flicks, perhaps a post-traumatic vestige of his past life. The play opens with Sarah’s return from Iraq where she’s been seriously injured by a roadside bomb — her leg broken, her arm in a sling, her face scarred. James, who rushed to the hospital in Germany where she lay in a coma for weeks and now racked with guilt, has become her solicitous and protective attendant. Despite her injuries, she is pushing to recover and return.
Their anxious relationship is contrasted to that of their friend and Sarah’s editor and mentor, Richard Ehrlich (Bruce Cromer), and a naïve, chatty girl, Mandy Bloom (Malory Hawks). Richard is twice her age, she constantly natters on about trivial matters, and they are deliriously happy, much to the astonishment and amusement of James and Sarah.
Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, is a master of contemporary dialogue, and he beautifully balances the dynamic among these four characters, each of which is enlivened with straightforward clarity by guest director Michael Evan Haney. As Goodwin, Johansen powerfully conveys a woman whose tough-as-nails exterior belies deeper feelings that she must suppress to carry out her assignments. It’s eating away at her, but she can’t break loose — Johansen is a powerful presence with a hardened, skeptical face and a slash of a mouth that spits out words dripping with anger and cynicism. Nonetheless, the scars on her face represent deeper wounds that occasionally show themselves.
It’s Hawks’ innocent Mandy that pushes Sarah, questioning her about how she could witness these horrifying events and not help a dying child or a traumatized mother. Her simple, mawkish reactions to aspects of life she has not experienced are both amusing but affecting, and they cause Sarah to confront her own conduct. It doesn’t necessarily change her, although it drives her to decisions that make things even more complicated.
Davis, an actor on our local scene at ETC and elsewhere for a long time, turns in one of his most balanced and textured performances. His James feels guilt and love simultaneously, but he struggles with many of the same issues that afflict Sarah, coping with them by busying himself in tasks that insulate him from day-to-day demands like deadlines as well as his memories of tragedy he has experienced. Cromer, one of Cincinnati’s most versatile professional actors (already this season he has played the virtuous Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons at Cincinnati Shakespeare; the cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge at the Playhouse; and a series of morally corrupt men in Speaking in Tongues at the Playhouse, another production directed by Haney), convincingly captures Richard, a caring mentor and hardworking editor who still must deal with the daily pressures of negotiating the contents of a news magazine. He has evolved beyond the cynicism of Sarah and James, finding bliss in a simply relationship with a young, caring woman. The counterbalancing of these four characters, a kind of trademark in several of Margulies’ award-winning plays, works beautifully and makes for an enlightening drama.
ETC’s designers — Brian C. Mehring for set and lighting, Shannon Rae Lutz for props, David Hunter for sound and Reba Senske for costumes — do their usual fine job of creating a believably real environment. The Brooklyn loft, potentially chic but cluttered, has the air of being untended, not unlike the lives of Sarah and James. It’s a setting where time has stood still, although life and pain around them swirls on.
TIME STANDS STILL, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati continues through April 1, 2012. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.