No time like the present: Time Stands Still (four of five stars)

Jobsite's wartime drama scores a direct hit.

Time Stands Still
Four out of five stars
Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Through July 31:Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. $28. 813-229-STAR.

At the heart of Donald Margulies’s fine play Time Stands Still is Sarah, a photojournalist who specializes in war and other miseries. As played by the radiant Joanna Sycz, Sarah is another of the awe-inspiring females who keep cropping up in American plays now that the women’s movement has succeeded so widely. She’s fearless, assertive, dangerous in argument, and addicted to the adrenalin rush of being right there when the bombs are going off. In fact, when we first meet her, her longtime lover James is helping her, scarred and damaged, into their apartment — she was, we learn, the victim of a roadside bomb that killed her interpreter (or “fixer”) Tariq during a Mideast mission, and had her comatose in a hospital in Germany before she came to.

One comes away from the theater feeling just as one might after seeing a remarkably revealing realist painting.

James, played with great emotional persuasiveness by David M. Jenkins, is a reporter who often accompanies Sarah on stories. But he saw one atrocity too many and was elsewhere having a breakdown when Sarah sustained her near-mortal injuries. Now they’re back together in New York, and James wants Sarah to heal and just maybe to marry him (they’ve been a couple for over eight years). But Sarah’s not sure that she can endure a life of babies and video movies, not even during those times when she’s wracked by self-doubt — as in one powerful scene when she agonizes over the fact that her job depends on other peoples’ tragedies.

Affording her an image of what domestic life might look like is her middle-aged editor, Richard — perfectly impersonated by the extraordinary Brian Shea — who has left his longtime partner Astrid for a woman half his age, the shallow but resolute Mandy, played earnestly by Maggie Mularz. Mandy’s favorite future absolutely involves babies, and as for her lover’s age, well, she confides, for now he’ll look after her, and when he’s old and demented, she’ll look after him. Thanks to Margulies’s consistently intelligent and unpredictable dialogue — and the four excellent performers in this Jobsite Theater production — Time Stands Still works as a fascinating character study, an opportunity for the audience to consider the souls of three persons who provide us with the shocking news, and one outsider — Mandy — who wants nothing to do with such sorrow. As in Margulies’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends, the genius of the play is its observation, its portraiture. One comes away from the theater feeling just as one might after seeing a remarkably revealing realist painting.

A lot of the credit goes to Sycz. I first saw this talented actress 16 years ago in The Cripple of Inishmaan, when she played Slippy Helen, a beautiful but sadistic young girl loved by the title character. In the decade-and-a-half that followed, I saw Sycz in a few other plays, but in none of them did she seem to live up to the brilliance of her performance in Inishmaan. Well, now that interregnum’s over: in Time Stands Still, Sycz is splendid, embodying a character whom you don’t dare look away from lest you miss one of the dozens of emotions that cross her expressive face.

And that face is in pretty bad shape when we first see it: One whole side is badly burned from the explosion, and even as it heals over the course of successive scenes, it never fully regains its natural state. Mularz/Mandy as Sycz/Sarah’s opposite is no slouch either; She serves the play as a sort of idiot savant, saying things so brazenly obvious that no one else dares speak their rather important name. This is particularly potent in Act One, when Mandy emotionally lets fly her outrage that Sarah could take pictures of a dying child instead of reaching out to help. Sarah defends herself as best she can, but Mandy has scored a hit, and nothing that happens afterwards quite erases the effect of her outburst. Courageous as she may be, Sarah is vulnerable to the charge of being a kind of vampire, living on others’ blood. Yes, the world needs her in order that it can act on what she reveals. But how often does the world do so? And is taking photos the best Sarah can manage?

If the cast of Time Stands Still is outstanding, so also is the dazzling direction of Summer Bohnenkamp: she does a painterly job of her own with the play’s four characters. The top-notch costume design is by Katrina Stevenson, and the handsome studio apartment set is by Brian Smallheer. In fact, this production is first class in every way; and so is Margulies’s play, a mature work for an adult audience. It’ll give you lots to think about, and much to feel. I can’t think of any other drama quite like it.  

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