“Time stands still” is an oxymoron, something inherently contradictory. Time, of course, is always progressing, though in the eye of the beholder time can seem to stand still under extreme conditions.
How people react to extreme conditions is a major theme of Donald Margulies’ multilayered relationship play, performing through March 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre. But, “relationship” as a topic for drama turns out to be an oxymoron as well.
James (Francis Gercke) and Sarah (Mhari Sandoval) are together again in their small Brooklyn apartment (scenic design by Marty Burnett, taking advantage of every available inch of stage space) after returning from a war zone. James, a freelance journalist, returned first, following an experience that made time stand still for him. Sarah, a photojournalist, stayed and continued to shoot until she was injured by a roadside bomb. Sarah spent time in the hospital recovering from wounds that nearly killed her, and now they are trying to put their lives back together.
Enter Richard (John Nutten), Sarah’s editor, toting along Mandy (Stacey Hardke), his new and very young girlfriend. Richard is solicitous of Sarah’s condition but encourages Sarah to get back in the swing of things by putting together a book of her photos. And, he encourages James (or, more familiarly, Jamie, as they are old friends), to write the text for the book.
James, however, has his own agenda for the way things should go. And, Richard has his. And, it turns out, Mandy has hers. The only person who seems not to have an agenda is Sarah, but ultimately we realize that she has one, too.
So, there’s not really any such thing as a “relationship” among any of these people. They come together, talk to each other, but each is, in the end, advancing a personal agenda via what each thinks is a a set of relationships (the oxymoron again).
Now, Mr. Margulies is clever. He doesn’t hit you over the head with any of this profundity. He keeps the talk ordinary and conversational. He lets his characters pontificate sometimes, argue sometimes, and speak lovingly sometimes, the way people in relationships do. At least one of them even grows and changes as the story progresses. But, the ordinariness of the talk masks the extraordinary events that James and Sarah have witnessed, events that Richard, Mandy and others who haven’t been there can only experience vicariously through Sarah’s pictures and James’ words.[php snippet=1]
Director David Ellenstein is clever, too. He knows that the play works best when it seems to be about ordinary people. And so, he lets the audience chuckle a little at Mandy’s naïve attempts at pretension, feel both James’ ardor and his fear, wonder what Richard is up to, and appreciate Sarah’s dedication. He knows as well that ultimately the play is about Sarah and he allows Ms. Sandoval (who deservedly gets the final bow at the curtain call) to unwind bit by bit as everyone around her ends up being part of the lens that helps bring her agenda into focus.
The cast members are up to the challenge. They keep the acting natural and believable, the line readings conversational, and refrain from histrionics even when fighting. By doing so, they let the play and its meaning sneak up, put its hands over your eyes, and say, “Boo!”
To say, “Time Stands Still sneaks up on you,” is itself an oxymoron (and a bad mixing of metaphors). But, this play is one where the fun is in the sneaking.