Examining the personal effects of emotional and physical trauma in DIY Theatre’s Time Stands Still

Between TV news and social media, we are surrounded by images of trauma every day, but we rarely have to get up close and personal with the survivors. And we even less commonly think about the people — most often, but not always, journalists — who make it possible for us to vicariously (i.e. safely) witness those events. Donald Margulies’ play Time Stands Still demands that we do both.

It is a story about Sarah and Jamie, a photojournalist and a war correspondent, who bonded over shared war stories and became a couple eight years ago. Jamie recently developed symptoms of PTSD in Iraq and retreated to the safety of their Brooklyn home. Shortly afterward, Sarah was critically injured by a roadside bomb. The play opens as Jamie is bringing Sarah home to recover. They soon find their relationship strained by Sarah’s insatiable need to return to the conflict, Jamie’s guilt over leaving her alone in Iraq, and their very different responses to the recent trauma.

They are challenged further to see their relationship in a different light when they are visited by Richard, a close friend who happens to be Sarah’s photo editor and also her ex. He has a new and much younger girlfriend, Mandy, and brings her to meet them.

Motel Theatre is the smallest of the Arts Commons spaces, seating 50 people in a simple black-box space where the audience is never more than about 20 feet from the actors. The intimate space makes it difficult not to be drawn into the relationship drama playing out onstage. The small audience sometimes feels a little like Mandy — an inadvertent and moderately unwilling witness, overhearing evidence of a relationship that is fraying at the seams.

The space is well-suited to the story, which takes place entirely in Sarah and Jamie’s living room. One gets the feeling that Jamie considers it a kind of sanctuary, while Sarah experiences it as a prison, pacing back and forth like a bear in a small cage at the zoo, despite her leg brace and crutch. The set design conveys a convincing urban apartment, cluttered with the detritus of two bohemian lives transiently intersecting.

It’s easy to see how the play could speak volumes beneath the surface of seemingly hyper-realistic and often banal dialogue, but here director and DIY Theatre artistic director Shelby Reinitz allows the actors mostly to skate on the surface, albeit with a strong pace and good dynamic range. Dialogue in places is too precisely articulated, and some of the gestures are large and better suited to a bigger space.

A standout is Wil Knoll (Jamie), whose performance is subtle and almost filmic in style, with full dynamic range conveyed in intense, contained movements, appropriate to the size of the venue. His silences — which in this play are key, and precisely choreographed — appear entirely spontaneous. It is a bit disconcerting that three of the four actors are considerably younger than their characters are described — Richard, in particular, is meant to be 55, and Adam Jamieson, who plays the part, is clearly not. It is possible to suspend disbelief to a certain extent, and allow some leeway, but when a character makes specific reference to their advanced age, it serves to pull the viewer out of the action.

Ashleigh Hicks as Mandy is the right age for the part, and convincingly embodies the ingenue who isn’t as flaky as she seems at first glance. Mandy is drawn into Jamie and Sarah’s shared trauma by virtue of her relationship with Richard, and she is puzzled and awed in equal parts by their fascination with the dark side of life. “There’s so much beauty in the world,” she says to Sarah and Jamie. “But you only see misery. Both of you. I wish you’d just let yourselves feel the joy. Otherwise … what’s the point?”

Mandy is intimidated to an extent by Sarah’s accomplishments and her talent, but also questions the ethics of spending time in a war zone taking pictures instead of trying to help the survivors. The title of the play refers to Sarah’s response — that she is able to distance herself from the horrors around her by framing them in the viewfinder of her camera, and that her job is to bring the narrative back to raise awareness of issues that she can’t possibly fix alone. Margulies sets up the dichotomy between Mandy and Sarah, but doesn’t dictate any answers, leaving it up to the viewer to balance the arguments on both sides. The same is true of the dynamic between Sarah and Jamie; there are no heroes or villains — just a relationship that grew out of a very particular context, and may not survive the new reality. Either way, this audience has a chance to examine it up close before they choose a side.

(Photo: Cast of Time Stands Still, courtesy of DIY Theatre.)

Time Stands Still by DIY Theatre runs at the Motel Theatre in Arts Commons until June 16.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.