Time does not stand still for the protagonists in Hartford Theaterworks's impeccable production of New Haven playwright Donald Margulies' aptly named "Time Stands Still," which is playing now through September 15. No, time continues to plunge inexorably forward, regardless of its impact on events, history and specifically, as Margulies demonstrates, on the relationship between Sarah, an award winning news photographer, and James, a respected war correspondent.
The play is ultimately an intense, frequently uncomfortable look at a relationship unexpectedly impacted by no less than the vagaries of war. In this case, it's the US intervention in Afghanistan, which has been chronicled by James and Sarah until a series of horrific incidents upsets their careful equilibrium. As the play opens, a wounded Sarah is being brought home to the couple's loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn after a three month hospitalization following an encounter with an IED in Afghanistan. Her long-time boyfriend and frequent journalistic collaborator James is being naturally solicitous, perhaps a bit too solicitous for the annoyed Sarah, for a number of reasons that will eventually be revealed.
Theaterworks' Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero has assembled a near perfect cast to portray Margulies' four characters and placed them within a wonderfully detailed set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, that depicts a rambling, crowded loft with huge windows overlooking the Williamsburg waterfront and the Manhattan skyline in the distance. As a result, "Time Stands Still" is presented with an immediacy that is as sobering as it is powerful.
Erika Rolfsrud endows Sarah with a prickliness and bravado that can be quite off-putting at times, just like any number of people we meet in real life. As we discover, she's completely dedicated to her work, feeling that there can be no greater reward than capturing the very second that conveys the depth and meaning of the situation, the moment when "time stands still." Although Sarah claims that her goal is to present to the world the atrocities, horrors and costs of war, it's also clear that she is always in search of that moment when she can click that perfect shot, so much so that she almost admits being uninterested in seeing the final result, as long as she knows the photograph was acutely successful.
Her boyfriend of some eight years, James, is played by Tim Altmeyer as an intelligent, compassionate man, with an underlying sense of frustration and exhaustion. James too has been felled by a war incident, witnessing the death of two young women right before his eyes, which contributed to a nervous breakdown that found him recovering at home the day Sarah was nearly killed. James's seeming inability to cope with the combat zone and his initial unavailability to Sarah has also contributed to her prickliness as well as to his own desire to pursue more safer opportunities.
The couple is visited frequently by Sarah's editor at the newsmagazine she works for, Richard, played as a worried intellectual by Matthew Boston. While indeed concerned about Sarah and to a lesser extent James, Richard is more concerned about his own relationship issues, which currently involves a three month old dallliance with a bubble-headed blond named Mandy, neatly played by Liz Holtan. Through her naivete and unfamiliarity with the world of publishing, the immature Mandy is often the one who utters the blunt truths or asks the difficult questions that the other characters are afraid to act. Holton is particularly good and utterly disarming as the cultural references expressed by the three older characters zip right over her head, as she unapologetically accepts and acknowledges her lack of sophistication.
Altmeyer's James comes across as both compassionate and impatient, but rather than make him too noble, he and Ruggiero assure that the man's flaws and limitations come through. Similarly, Boston allows Richard to be a protective editor acquiescing to Sarah's volatile mood swings while simultaneously reverting to an adolescent excitement over this new young woman in his life. Rolfsrud maneuvers admirably through the evening's most complex role, as Sarah must reveal layers of feelings and denials, as she tries to accommodate the needs and wants of those closest to her.
Ruggiero's direction captures all the nuances and twists of Margulies' tale, which also allows for the exploration of some thought-provoking issues regarding the role of a photographer or war correspondent in capturing life and death situations. It is appropriate that Mandy is the one willing to confront Sarah about whether a photographer or journalist has the responsibility to get the picture at all cost or to intervene to help those impacted or injured. As directed by Ruggiero, it's one of the play's stronger scenes that helps to reveal the values that reside at the core of the central couple. At the same time, Margulies also hints at the impending changes in the magazine industry that will lead to more commercial considerations and an increased emphasis on more "light hearted" topics.
Eventually we come to understand that the cataclysmic events have impacted both Sarah's and James' outlooks on their careers and their relationship, though both remain in states of denial and resentment, as for example, represented by James' difficulty in completing the narrative accompanying a book of Sarah's photographs that Richard hopes to publish.
But ultimately "Time Stands Still" is the story of a relationship that despite the efforts of both members cannot afford to ignore the changes promulgated by the steady advance of time and circumstance upon individual's hopes, fears and objectives. The pregnant Mandy serves to remind that biological clocks cannot be avoided, while wartime atrocities and accidents expose the deepest feelings of the two main characters to each other's scrutiny.
As a result, "Time Stands Still" is an invigorating evening of thought-provoking, compelling theater played to exquisite precision by a talented cast guided by a director who clearly understands the deep mine of humanity in a strong and rewarding play.
For tickets, call Hartford Theaterworks at 860.527.7838 or visit the their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org.
To keep up with theatrical events in Connecticut, please consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the Subscribe button at the top of this article. Your inbox will be sent a free copy of each new article. To keep up with theatrical events in western Massachusetts, please visit and subscribe to the Springfield Art Examiner.