by MIRA REINBERG, Guest Reviewer
Once in a while we – the media, readers, and spectators – allow ourselves to open up the questions that are inherent to reportage of modern war: in what ways is war journalism ethical? And whom does it serve? Do photographs and descriptions from the war zone effect change in the becoming-informed public, enough to push us to action, or do they appease our conscience and increase the distance between the comfort of non-participants and the real actors in the conflict, local populations and journalists?
These questions are now played out on the Guthrie Theater stage in Time Stands Still, by Donald Margulies. In his comments, the playwright states that he is motivated by the dynamics that break through official discourse and come into view in people’s living rooms. Indeed, scene after scene takes place in the main couple’s living room, a dwelling that represents eloquently the environment of educated, self-aware, liberal professional Americans. Sarah (Sarah Agnew) is a photographer who has been badly wounded in Iraq and is recuperating now at home, cared for by her loyal boyfriend of nine years, James (Bill McCallum), himself a shell-shocked war journalist. Their close friend (and editor) Richard (Mark Benninghofen) and his new pretty and vacuous young girlfriend Mandy (Valeri Mudek) are frequent guests in the apartment. The set (by Walt Spangler) is an adequate – and ironic – representation of such a dwelling: raw but trendy assemblage of oriental throws, mollifying furniture, and bare kitchen against the vista of the Manhattan skyline. Modest yet privileged, unimaginative yet smart, lackluster yet appropriate.
The production serves the play well through the set, for it echoes the standstill in the elaboration of the hard questions that the script tries to raise throughout the play. It is not that crucial questions aren’t broached, they are: should Sarah return to the front when she has recovered; how can journalists record suffering instead of tending to the victims; is James justified in preferring to relinquish the grand mission of reporting and remain comfortably at home; should they get married and have children. Ultimately they ask whether their testimony will produce change.
Unfortunately the script flutters over these weighty questions like a butterfly hurrying to cover a large surface without dwelling on any one point. This is regrettable because there are many occasions for profound engagement with the dialogue. When James tells Sarah that he is inclined now to work on horror films because they represent “the new cinema of cruelty,” referring perhaps to Antonin Artaud’s theory of the Theater of Cruelty, why does he not expound on the significance of the relationship between our fascination with horror movies and our distance from the horrors of reality? When Sarah observes the contradictory qualification of horror movies as “desensitizing and cathartic” at the same time, why does the dialogue not seize on the power that such a contradiction could have to elucidate the docile state of Americans in regards to war suffering that the script attempts to bring forth? All we hear is a sentence from James, proclaiming that horror movies are a “barometer of political climate” in so far as they aim to punish modern humans for having sex. This is just one example among many in which the dialogue does not grant us the time or space to face the very dilemmas they enact. If it is the fast pace of our lives that dictates the time we allot to engagement with essential moral questions, does the play challenge us by providing the frame for time to stand still?
As the second act opens we see the two now-married couples, returning from a play dramatizing the same themes as the ones we are watching, only to be vociferously ridiculed as “hell on earth packaged” for audiences whose ‘liberal guilt” it serves to “cleanse.” This self-referential nod to the present spectators, who respond in laughter, provides little basis for a true confrontation with our disconnected relationship to the world. With all the actors’ good will to manifest the detachment between battle front and home, they are only given the chance to echo this detachment without contesting it, precisely as Richard, the editor, says to the two journalists: “I lived vicariously through you and got to see the world.” One conclusion, perhaps, is that seeing the world necessitates photographing victims instead of rushing them to treatment.
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. Directed by Joe Dowling. At the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. April 7 – May 20, 2012. Guthrie Box Office: 612.377.2224 or 877.44.STAGE. Tickets may be purchased online at www.guthrietheater.org.