In the midst of an increasingly heated argument over the question of the individual’s responsibility to reject the comfortable life and to try to make a difference for those who are less fortunate, Mandy confronts photojournalist Sarah and foreign correspondent James. “I wish you’d just let yourselves feel the joy. Y’know? Otherwise…what’s the point?”
The questions hang in the air and remain the central concern of Time Stands Still (2009), Donald Margulies’ engrossing examination of two contemporary couples struggling with the personal, marital and moral choices that will define their lives and relationships. Nominated for a 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, Time Stands Still is a serious, intelligent, fascinating drama, and this extraordinary Princeton Summer Theater company provides an engaging, thought-provoking evening — a theater experience that audiences want to talk about afterwards.
In the past two months the abundantly talented PST troupe has taken its audiences on an adventurous, brilliantly successful journey with four strikingly different shows, each posing its own significant intellectual and theatrical challenges.
From its opening with an exquisite production of the much loved, intimate musical She Loves Me (1963), to a heart-warming presentation of Beth Henley’s hilarious, southern gothic masterpiece Crimes of the Heart (1978), to the wildly farcical, Monty Python-esque murder mystery spoof The 39 Steps (2005) and now the disquieting, contemporary drama Time Stands Still — this youthful, impressively professional contingent of college undergraduates and recent graduates from Princeton University and elsewhere has offered one of the finest seasons in the 45-year history of Princeton Summer Theater.
With only four characters and just one setting, in the Brooklyn apartment of the two protagonists, Time Stands Still is deceptively simple — in some ways the most challenging production of the summer for PST. Though it seems like a small world here, Mr. Margulies, with seven scenes in two acts spanning a period of almost a year, draws his characters in rich, three-dimensional detail. The dialogue is realistic, intellectual, engaging and entertaining. With the two main characters, James and Sarah, in their late 30s or early 40s, approaching the most difficult stage of their relationship and the unresolvable existential questions of middle age, and the two supporting characters, 25-year-old Mandy and 55-year-old Richard, with no less thorny character dilemmas and relationship issues to grapple with, the requisite stretches here are huge for these actors in their early 20s.
The play begins as James (Brad Wilson) is bringing Sarah (Maeve Brady) home to their New York apartment from the overseas hospital where she has been recuperating from injuries sustained in the war zone on a photography assignment in Iraq. Sarah, strong and determined, though visibly suffering with scars, leg brace and crutches, and James, energetically solicitous and concerned, are obviously together (married by act two) and in love, though frequently in conflict.
Their future, individually and together, hangs in the balance, as the issues proliferate. James is still suffering from the traumas of reporting the Iraq war. He feels guilty because he came home early, leaving Sarah in Iraq. James is eager for a more conventional, less public life—marriage, family, stability. He is working on an article, not about devastating current events, but about horror movies. “I just want to be comfortable,” he tells Sarah later in the play. “Does that make me a bad person?”
Sarah, however, remains unwilling to give up her career. She is committed to her larger sense of purpose. Determined and uncompromising, she is eager to return to work, to the front lines, despite her severe injuries. Does she need James and the security, comfort and “normalcy” of life in Brooklyn more than she needs the excitement and the moral commitment of her life on the barricades?
These issues and others are brought to the fore and further developed with a visit from their friend Richard (Evan Thompson), a 55-year-old photo editor, and his 25-year-old girl friend Mandy (Sarah Paton). Mandy, from a different generation and seemingly from a different world, exposes the conflict most starkly. Though she admires and remains in awe of Sarah, and they even bond in their mutual respect and understanding, Mandy provides a completely antithetical perspective, as she is ready to give up her job to pursue a conventional marriage, family and life style with her much older spouse.
Ms. Brady in the central role is strong, focused and convincing in her physical fragility, as she contends with her injuries, and in her mental steadfastness. This character is clearly set apart, heroic in her life choices and her ability to stay true to those choices, and Ms. Brady communicates that commitment with powerful presence and delivery. Mr. Wilson’s James effectively displays a wider range of thoughts and feelings as he deals with his trauma, his desire for a more conventional life, his love for Sarah and her adamant dedication to her career.
As Richard, Mr. Thompson plays with assurance the role of authoritative photo editor, older friend and partner to his much younger girlfriend/fiancée. Ms. Paton’s Mandy, though the most accessible role for this quartet in terms of age (25), is the most demanding characterization in terms of dialogue and tone. Mandy’s youth, inexperience, provincialism and orthodox attitudes clash sharply with the mindset of Sarah in particular and at times of the other characters too. Her girlish attire, the balloons she brings to the ailing Sarah and her patterns of speech and her demeanor all bespeak another generation with more traditional priorities than those of the other three characters. And yet — and here is where Mr. Margulies’ dialogue may have created an impossibly inconsistent tone and character — Mandy’s character demands to be taken seriously. Sarah may be the praiseworthy heroine of the play, but Mandy’s assertion of the values of marriage, family, children and conventionality resonates strongly and clearly, in a manner that none of the others, not even the stalwart Sarah can ignore or deny.
These four skillful, experienced performers have all distinguished themselves in two or more major roles in previous productions this summer, and here, under the wise, capable direction of Emma Watt, they explore these complex characters and the troubling terrain of this play with energy and focused seriousness of purpose. These characters have proven their abilities to effect dazzling theatrical magic and convincing character stretches, but here some credibility and chemistry are missing at times as these 20-something actors grapple with their characters’ big questions of middle age or when actors of the same age are working out an age gap of 30 years in their characters’ relationship. Mr. Margulies’ occasionally elusive tone and the plethora of issues here — political, moral, marital, personal, career — further complicates the challenge.
But my quibbles arise partly from the fact that PST’s extraordinary season may have raised unrealistic expectations. Mr. Margulies’ play is rich, intellectually stimulating and entertaining — among his best, dealing with some of the same issues as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends (2000) and the Pulitzer finalists Collected Stories (1996) and Sight Unseen (1991). And Ms. Watt’s production features four superb performers and first-rate production values manifested in Jeffrey Van Velsor’s detailed, thoroughly realistic Brooklyn apartment set, Alex Mannix’s adroit lighting and Annika Bennett’s spot-on costumes.
In discussing his aims in Time Stands Still, Mr. Margulies described his desire “to capture a sense of the way we live now, to dramatize the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with.” He accomplished that ambitious goal and more, and Princeton Summer Theater brings it all to life in this dynamic culmination to their exciting 2013 season.