On the surface, Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” is about a writer and his photojournalist girlfriend whose seemingly parallel career paths covering war-torn hotspots and human-rights violations agonizingly diverge thanks to mutual – yet separate – near-death experiences.
But Margulies’ characters could easily be transferred from the battlefield to the E.R., or to any intense, all-encompassing arena, as the drama – which is currently receiving its Sacramento premiere at Three Penny Theatre in Ovation Stage’s ripe-for-discussion production – is more about how lovers struggle with submerging their true desires in order to please their partners.
I recently sat down with Beth Edwards, who plays the globetrotting photog Sarah Goodwin, and James Andrew, who’s cast as Sarah’s longtime partner and comrade-in-camouflage James Dodd, to talk about the Maggie Adair Upton-directed play and their insights into the motivations and personalities of their respective characters.
Both said they started with peeling away the layers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 2009 script before adding their own unique flavors culled from independent research.
“I saw an interview with Bob Woodward, the ABC News reporter who was injured (by an IED in Iraq),” said Edwards, the co-managing director of Big Idea Theatre who also frequently appears on that company’s Del Paso Boulevard stage as a featured actress. “He was talking about his experiences and the differences from who he was before he was injured, and how he was after. He said, ‘I’m a noncombatant. It never occurred to me that I would get hurt.’ I think that’s the mindset they have going in there. They’re not the ones with guns, so they don’t expect to get hurt. That’s Sarah’s view, and how I approached playing her. Even after she gets hurt, and decides she wants to go back, she feels like her injury was an anomaly – it was a one-time thing, like being struck by lightning.”
“I had already studied up on journalists,” said Andrew, a Sacramento resident since 2009 who is just now stepping into the River City spotlight after a hiatus teaching acting (“Not even my wife has seen me act up here.”). “For this role, my character is particularly fascinated by movies, so I went and watched those movies referenced in the play so I knew what he was talking about. Most of my preparation had to do with figuring out what the person’s emotional state was, where he’s coming from with what is going on with Sarah, so I just focused on that.
“James has been with Sarah for eight years, and he was a journalist before that, so he’s always been exposed to danger. But things have changed for him. Before the play starts he’s suffered a mental breakdown after a horrible event takes place. I’m a huge newswatcher and a huge fan of documentaries, so I’ve seen plenty of things like this before. His emotional state really changes. Sarah has her own experiences, but it doesn’t affect her the same way.”
“He reacts one way, and Sarah reacts the opposite way and that’s when we sort of start to divide as a couple,” said Edwards.
Andrew said he perceives Sarah as a much tougher person than James, able to brush herself off and get back to doing what she’s passionate about, which is freezing time in her camera’s viewfinder (hence the play’s title) and sharing what she sees with the world.
“But it really sets him back,” he said. “He really doesn’t want to go back and that’s part of the separation they’re having. She wants to continue doing what she’s doing and he wants nothing to do with it. But he loves her a lot, so he wants to be with her. And that’s more important to him than the tragedy he’s gone through.”
The fact James’ own medical evacuation prevented his being there for Sarah when she was almost killed, contributes to his reevaluation of what’s important to him, said Andrew.
“He’s experiencing terrible guilt,” he said. “For him, not being there for her feels awful. And there’s nothing you can do about it, it just exists, you know? You think, ‘I’ve missed out on that opportunity to be there for someone,’ and I think that’s what takes him to the point where we begin the play, which is he just wants to be there for her and not leave her side, and to make sure she’s taken care of. Though in my truth of it, I think she can take care of herself.”
“Well, James’ being there wouldn’t have changed anything,” said Edwards. “He might have been killed as well. He couldn’t have stopped what happened from happening. It’s one of the risks – an ‘occupational hazard’ I believe what Sarah calls it in the play. It’s a risk you take. She accepts that.”
Contributing to James’ born-again protectiveness of Sarah, and to his suburban dream of a white-picket-fence lifestyle writing about horror films for a stateside zine, is a welcome-home visit at the top of the play from the couple’s friend Richard (Earl Victorine), the photo editor of a news magazine (and a long-ago ex of Sarah’s), and his new, much-younger girlfriend Mandy (Amber Marsh). Their mutual devotion, and Mandy’s simple, but honest, perception of what’s important in life, helps clarify James’ own feelings of what he truly cares about.
Though it might be easy to assume a former paramour’s presence (with a comely, much-younger girlfriend) as a possible factor in widening James and Sarah’s rift, Edwards said Mandy’s uncluttered take on relationships (and everything else) is what annoys the sometimes self-important photojournalist – not jealousy.
“When your 50-something friend shows up with a 20-something girlfriend, it’s not that we’re judging his relationship, it’s that she’s a child and the ‘lightest’ of the four of us – she’s the comic relief really,” said Edwards. “You think she’s not as intelligent, but I think she’s the wisest of the four of us.”
“I tend to agree with Beth here,” said Andrew. “I have a personal experience in my own life (that’s similar). My wife is 12 years younger than I am. My brother’s wife is 25 years younger than him. When I met her, I just reacted to her like any other person, but it was like, ‘Wow! She’s significantly younger than him, and you wonder, ‘How did that happen?’ Our characters shake their heads at this younger Mandy a lot. But you love who you love, and you love who you’re with. And, by the end of the story, our characters get to know Mandy and like her.”
Andrew and Edwards echo one another’s praise of Margulies’ handling of character development.
“A lot of times you get a character that’s just two-dimensional, or even one-dimensional – a Johnny-One-Note,” said Andrew. “With James Dodd, I was more excited about the character than the play itself. I was just like, ‘Wow – what a great character to attack.’ That’s what I like about Donald Margulies’ writing; he really writes these rich characters. In James’ case, he’s trying to refocus his life on Sarah and finding a common ground again.”
“It really is all about the characters,” said Edwards.
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The Ovation Stage production of Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still"
WHERE: Three Penny Theatre, 1723 25th St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHEN: Aug. 24 through Sept. 15, 2013, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays
WHO: Directed by Maggie Adair Upton; featuring Beth Edwards (Sarah); James Andrew (James); Earl Victorine (Richard); Amber Marsh (Mandy)
HOW MUCH: $15-$18; tickets are available online at www.ovationstage.com, or by phone at (916) 448-0312
FOR MORE INFO: call (916) 448-0312, or email Ovation Stage at firstname.lastname@example.org