A war photographer struggles back to the ordinary in ‘Time Stands Still’

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the actress playing Mandy was incorrectly identified in the fourth paragraph.

Why is it that a loving relationship is more apt to withstand bombs than the dormant aftermath? Playwright Donald Margulies poses this question in the steadily engrossing “Time Stands Still,” a drama at Studio Theatre performed with the polish of a splendidly synchronized string quartet.

The four actors at director Susan Fenichell’s keenly realized command — Holly Twyford, Greg McFadden, Dan Illian and Laura C. Harris — apply a completely convincing varnish to the framework of Margulies’s story, set in the exposed-brick Brooklyn apartment of McFadden’s James and Twyford’s Sarah, journalists returning from harrowing stints in Iraq.

James has come home with shattered nerves: the nomadic life of a war correspondent has lost its romance for him. Sarah, a widely admired war photographer, returns in far worse physical shape. Gravely injured in a roadside bombing that claimed the life of her Iraqi assistant, she arrives swathed in splints and covered in scars. But not, apparently, cured of the job’s adrenaline rush, one that James no longer feels. She desperately wants to go back.

Therein lies the central tension of “Time Stands Still” — for Sarah, war is the only place that time doesn’t. Protracted exposure to the world’s horrors has mutated their mutual desire: the play dances on the edge of James and Sarah’s bottled anger, especially as they’re forced to confront the warmer, cozier love between their magazine editor, Illian’s Richard, and his new, dewy girlfriend, Harris’s Mandy, an event planner who initially seems to live in a gauzy universe of Gracious Home catalogues and Tory Burch sales.

Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner With Friends,” a play tracing the delicate fissures in seemingly secure American marriages, demonstrates his gift again here for bitingly underlining the jaw-dropping absurdities of conventional social transactions. How dandy is it that he has Mandy — embodied here by Harris in a breakthrough performance of almost terrifying self-assurance — meet Sarah with a get-well gift that’s both ludicrous and touching in its naiveté? (Twyford’s looks of utter disdain get the appropriate rise from the audience.)

The moments that feel like snapshots of ordinary truth come across, in fact, as more special than the play’s narrative arc as a whole. Dramatic treatments of journalists and their battle wounds often strum the same chords: they’re tales of supremely gifted and committed pros whose emotional lives are not nearly as competently maintained. (See, for instance, “The Killing Fields.”) Hewing to this somewhat familiar outline deprives “Time Stands Still” of some measure of distinctiveness.

Still, if one is looking for a playwright who can filter out the clichés and deliver portraits of intelligent people with colorful, even bitterly funny points of view, Margulies is a writer to count on. Suffusing the plot, which takes place over the months of Sarah’s recuperation, is the intriguing issue of the unfairness of what James and Sarah must go through to try to stay together, considering the cushier circumstances of Richard and Mandy.

“You’re the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” Richard says to them, of their long affinity for disaster. Twyford and McFadden seem ideally matched in the struggle for the power to determine how they will co-exist: there’s love on each side, but bitterness is always in the mix, too. Twyford expertly conveys the resentment boiling up in Sarah, both at having to rely on James and feeling that he’s somehow let her down. McFadden balances the equation superbly, letting us in by degree on James’s conviction that he’s been eclipsed by Sarah and yet still looks for signs that she cares for him. (You have here the suggestion of what a noteworthy Martha and George they might make, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)

Fenichell guides the actors with a rewarding penchant for emotional directness. John McDermott’s set makes ruggedly handsome use of Studio’s Metheny Theatre and aids in the show’s sense of good flow, an impression mirrored in Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting, Ivania Stack’s costumes and echoed in Eric Shimelonis’s music for the blackouts between scenes.

The rightness extends, of course, to the persuasive Illian and Harris, who ensure that all four casting corners of “Time Stands Still” are muscularly occupied. The evening’s solid state reaffirms a perception that what Studio puts on its stages these days is all aspiring—and often coming close to — a gold standard.

Time Stands Still, by Donald Margulies. Directed by Susan Fenichell. Set, John McDermott; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound and original composition, Eric Shimelonis; dramaturgy, Lauren Halvorsen; technical director, Charlie Olson. About 2 hours 5 minutes. Through Feb. 12 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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