Theater Review: 'Time Stands Still,' Green Room Productions | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Time Stands Still,' Green Room Productions


Published September 20, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 20, 2023 at 10:10 a.m.

Maren Langdon Spillane in Time Stands Still - COURTESY OF DOMINIC SPILLANE
  • Courtesy Of Dominic Spillane
  • Maren Langdon Spillane in Time Stands Still

A photographer's image of war captures a moment in a way that words cannot — sometimes because the tragedy is indescribable. While the image is the product of an eye, it's easy to forget that it was also the work of an "I," a witness whose action in that desperate moment was simply to document it. What is it like to return from war with disturbing knowledge that can't be unknown, horrific visions that can't be unseen — and the question of whether one's work contributed to the cause of peace or merely amplified suffering?

These are some of the questions dramatized in Donald Margulies' 2009 play Time Stands Still. Green Room Productions has been staging the play in Warren and Waterbury since mid-August with Joanne Greenberg directing. The run of performances ends at Burlington's Off Center for the Dramatic Arts on Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23.

Set during the U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s — aka the war on terror — the play explores war's effects on a journalist couple who met in the embattled Middle East and now find themselves trying to maintain their bond back in Brooklyn.

The play opens with photojournalist Sarah, played by Maren Langdon Spillane, returning from Iraq, where she was badly injured by a roadside bomb that killed her fixer, Tariq. Bearing facial scars and using a crutch, she is assisted by her longtime partner, James (Eric Reid-St. John). He's a reporter whose own war zone trauma compelled him to return a few months before Sarah did. The companions' joint reentry to what should be a comfortable domestic sphere is noticeably stiff, like Sarah's battered body, implying some relationship rehab ahead.

The play soon reveals one of the obstacles to a more exuberant reunion: James' guilt at having been absent when Sarah was hurt and during her early recovery abroad. The couple's physical and psychological wounds soon expose deeper divisions that will take time to heal. The plot unfolds not so much as the pursuit of a central question as a series of discoveries the characters make — about themselves and each other — as they recover from trauma, grapple with the ethics of their work and survive life during wartime in consequentially different ways.

The cohabitation becomes claustrophobic — especially for Sarah, as James overdoes the doting. That mood is enhanced by a set, the handiwork of Johno Landsman, that simulates a believable Williamsburg apartment in size and adornment. A single room with a sideboard, a couch, and a small dining table and chairs conjures a coziness that inevitably degrades into that feeling of confinement familiar to cooped-up urbanites.

These living conditions are primed for interpersonal fireworks as Sarah and James confront their past, present and complicated future together. The arrival of two other characters, Sarah and James' editor, Richard (Chris Hennessey); and Richard's girlfriend, Mandy (Maya Redington), leavens the mood.

Many years younger than Richard and an event planner by profession, Mandy comes off looking callow and naïve in these lighter moments — "a lightweight," as Sarah calls her. The laughs Mandy generates are at her own expense, offering brief respite from the tension that energizes the action and triggers ready arguments and snark. The stage might resemble an episode of "Friends," but Time Stands Still is very much in the tradition of such bourgeois cage-match dramas as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Margulies' script sends these characters down a gradual path toward truth telling. As in offstage relationships, the truths that characters share must be well earned — and well timed. Connecting is especially complicated for Sarah and James, who are trying to reconcile with themselves while figuring out how to stay together. Under Greenberg's deft direction, Langdon Spillane and Reid-St. John realize this material with nuance and sensitivity, both in the play's high emotional register and in its quieter, more intimate passages.

Langdon Spillane shows her acting range in expressing multifaceted suffering. Sarah's surface pain — her damaged body — is merely the bandage covering bereavement, guilt, self-loathing and other complex emotions. Reid-St. John matches Langdon Spillane's simmering, volatile Sarah with a turn that shows James as alternately shaken by war, committed to the righteousness of his work and avoidant of a confrontation with his wounds. In the caretaker's role, James can be a bit of a mansplainer, and the actor makes his intrusions subtle enough to be convincing yet strong enough to be annoying.

Most importantly, Langdon Spillane and Reid-St. John make Sarah and James a believable couple; they do seem to belong together, even if circumstances make that difficult.

Supporting players Richard and Mandy restore a sense of local culture to their friends' globally enmeshed lives. While their relationship comes across as more superficial than Richard assures Sarah and James it is, it offers a glimpse of the carefree life from which the journalists walked away.

Hennessey brings energy and charisma to his portrayal of the photo editor, working the room with the confidence of someone with the pull to get his friends' work into print. He's a welcome, warm presence. If Richard has a professional agenda, it's linked to his concern for his friends' wellbeing. In return, they openly question his relationship judgment.

As Mandy, Redington operates within a narrower range of possibilities. We are led to expect little insight from her bubbly persona. At the risk of a spoiler: While Mandy's journey over the course of Time Stands Still doesn't carry her out of her urban comfort zone, she nevertheless grows. Redington enacts this growth with a composure that belies her character's seeming flightiness. Mandy, initially dismissed, won't be denied in telling her own truth.

The characters in Time Stands Still are a highly reflective group. Each has their own deeply considered take on the state of the world from which they generate credible conversations and debates. At times, this production captures the pace of everyday human interaction too accurately, the emotional roller coaster hitting the occasional quagmire. As in the war on terror that occasions this story, the play's objectives are opaque, its characters forging their way toward important decisions beat by beat.

Time Stands Still tracks journeys both geographical and emotional, the two commingling to illuminate the challenge of reconciling a world at war with the privilege of living in peace. One need not be a journalist filing frontline dispatches to relate to this tension. This potent production generates a palpable sense of complicity, leaving us to consider what it all has to do with us.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Battle Lines | Theater review: Time Stands Still, Green Room Productions"

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