Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are engaged — it's official! The news broke last weekend, and the media half-life of the nonstory promises to be long. All right, we care. But are we as interested in Jolie's film about Bosnia, In the Land of Blood and Honey? Yeah, I haven't seen it, either.
That pull of frivolous, good-news reporting versus in-your-face real-world travails provides the tension in the Unicorn Theatre's excellent production of Time Stands Still. Donald Margulies' Tony-nominated play centers on Sarah, a photojournalist in Iraq, and her longtime boyfriend, James, a journalist.
Sarah has fame, and not just for her moving and dramatic photos. She has barely survived a roadside bomb — the explosion hurled her 40 feet — and has returned home, with the help of James, to recuperate in their Brooklyn apartment. Carla Noack radiates exhaustion as she hobbles through the door on crutches — it's immediately clear that her journey has been too much. I felt her fatigue as she slowly made her way to the sofa. When she gulped a glass of ice-cold water, my own throat felt Iraq-desert parched.
"I had my 15 minutes," Sarah says, before jokingly lamenting that a two-week coma forced her to miss it. Now this middle-aged couple, together eight years, settles in — or tries to. Their attractive New York loft (beautifully designed by Jason Coale, with lighting by Alex Perry) is a far cry from living conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, but it harbors some discomfort. Something unsaid hangs in the air.
James (David Fritts) unpacks bags and cleans out six-week-old food from the refrigerator. He was with Sarah in Iraq but left before the explosion. The interpreter standing next to her — who taught himself English by reading A Farewell to Arms — was killed. James has survivor's guilt but also wants change. He longs for a more normal life, away from mortal danger and gruesome scenes.
As he watches over Sarah, he works on a piece about horror films. Sarah can't comprehend his obsession — they have witnessed real horror, putting James in therapy and preventing Sarah from sleeping. Horror films are cathartic, James suggests. They desensitize us. Which is it? Sarah asks. Good question.
Their friend Richard (Mark Robbins), concerned for Sarah, visits with his girlfriend of three months, Mandy (Ashlee LaPine), an event planner who's young enough to be his daughter. She brings balloons — "Flowers die," she says. He defends the relationship to his old friends. She makes him happy, he says. She's "fun" and "light."
Richard is a photo editor at a magazine where James' article about refugees has languished for months. Richard says he's pleading the story's case with a staff unable (unwilling?) to find pages for it amid fashion and celebrity news. Sarah and James, he says, should collaborate on a book about their experiences in Iraq. ("A coffee-table book?" they joke.)
Mandy is taken by Sarah's images but accuses her of seeing only misery and calls James' article another of those "bummer stories." "Let yourself feel the joy," she says. "Otherwise, what's the point?"
That dilemma is at the center of the play. Under the expert and tight direction of Sidonie Garrett, these four very talented actors explore the nuances of Margulies' probing, well-written drama.
What price do journalists pay to do what they do? What do they give up? They witness the troubled spots around the world, often risking their lives. Mandy admits that she doesn't understand. At one point, distraught, she recalls a TV program in which a baby elephant is lost and separated from its mother. The film crew was right there, she cries — they could have saved him. It's a moving query, neither naïve nor unfair. But their place, Richard explains, is to record, not to intervene.
Despite memories that haunt her — particularly a market bombing, in which a badly injured woman desperately searched for her child in the rubble and pleaded with Sarah not to take photos — Sarah is still drawn to that life. "My job is to take pictures," she says, "to show the world."
That world has real horrors, but returning to its dangers might be what helps her feel alive again and what gives her life purpose. In a year that has already claimed the lives of several journalists abroad, Time Stands Still is a thoughtful, challenging reminder of what makes some of us look for a little shelter in celebrity gossip, why we don't like to see innocent civilians, or baby elephants, die.