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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Time Stands Still and Knives in Hens

Time Stands Still
Susan McKey, Kevin Kelly, Bruce Graham and Megan McDermott
Photo by Matt Urban
Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies' compelling drama at Act II Playhouse, seems at first as if it's going to be a meditation on war and politics. But Margulies' characters, as it turns out, aren't greatly concerned with those big issues. What matters most to them are personal issues—and what matters to the playwright is how moral quandaries and traumatic events affect different people in different ways. Director Bud Martin's earnest production finds just the right blend of tenderness and tension.

Time Stands Still opens with photographer Sarah and her reporter boyfriend James returning to their Brooklyn apartment from an assignment in Iraq that went horribly wrong: he suffered a breakdown, and she was hit by a roadside bomb that left her with an arm in a sling, a leg in a cast, and a body full of shrapnel scars. James is wracked by guilt over leaving her alone at the time of her attack, and now he wants to start a new life with her that doesn't involve covering war. "Let's stop running," he tells her. But while Sarah wants to make him happy, she can't leave her past life behind. She's still volatile, always ready for combat—even if that combat is in her own apartment. As they face up to their own weaknesses and transgressions, they struggle with how to face the future, and how much of the past they can leave behind.

Time Stands Still works in large part thanks to its appealing characters and Margulies' warm, naturalistic dialogue. Sarah, James and their longtime friend and editor Richard speak with the familiar cadence of people who have been close for years. The fourth character is an outsider who enters their world: Mandy, the new (and much younger) girlfriend of middle-aged Richard. When Mandy says she's an event planner, Sarah responds with sarcasm that goes over Mandy's head: "I guess you can say I'm into events too. Wars, famines, genocide." The contrast between the unsophisticated (but perceptive) Mandy and the others has potential, but Margulies doesn't explore it enough. Mandy's relationship with Richard isn't fleshed out, so we never understand what he sees in her and what makes their relationship work.

We do, however, understand what Sarah and James see in each other, how they feed off each other's needs, and how they understand each other's motivations. It's because Margulies has drawn the viewer so deeply into the couple's internal lives that the show's climax, and the change that it brings about in their lives, feels rushed and a bit unsatisfactory. But like so much about Time Stands Still, it feels believable.

Susan McKey is wonderful as Sarah, summoning all the dignity, indignation and determination of this meaty, complicated character. It's also fascinating to see the way her body language changes throughout the show as Sarah's wounds slowly heal. Kevin Kelly gives James a weary sensitivity that nicely complements McKey's bitterness. Bruce Graham's supportive and practical Richard is a nice balance to the lead couple, and Megan McDermott is sweet and funny as Mandy.

Time Stands Still isn't perfect, but it's a moving drama full of smart people saying interesting things and examining some tough issues head on. Well done.

Time Stands Still runs through March 11, 2012, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $27 to $33, with discounts available for students and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200 or online at www.act2.org.


Knives in Hens
Ross Beschler and
Emilie Krause

Photo by Paola Nogueras
Knives in Hens, by Scottish playwright David Harrower, is a play that's tricky to describe. At its heart, it's a love triangle, the fodder of drama since olden times. In fact, this play takes place during olden times ... or does it? At times it seems as if it's set in Britain in the era after the Norman Conquest: people travel by foot or by horse; men have traditional rural occupations (ploughman, miller); people profess to be religious, but their religion seems to mix Christianity with a Druid-influenced obsession with wizards and spells; and there's much talk of the English language and the meanings of words—characters come up with words for objects as they see them, as if the language is still being created.

Yet no one in director Brenna Geffers' production speaks with a British accent. There are a few contemporary-style profanities. And one of the main characters writes with a modern ink pen. What's going on here?

In a way, it doesn't matter when or where the play takes place; Knives in Hens feels timeless, unbound to any era or setting. But while that makes the show intriguing, it also creates a distance between the production and its audience that Theatre Exile's new production isn't able to overcome. The production is beautiful to look at, strikingly executed, and gives the viewer a lot to think about. Yet it never quite pulls the audience into its special, distinctive world. Despite being produced in a small room, with actors only a few feet away from the audience, Knives in Hens feels remote.

William (Jered McLenigan) is the ploughman, whose day consists almost entirely of plowing his fields, raising animals for food, and exerting himself for very little reward. His new bride (Emilie Krause)—she's never called by name, and is referred to in the script simply as "Young Woman"—works hard too, but never complains. Speaking plainly and directly, she tells her husband about her typical day: "I killed two hens and fed the rest ... I pulled four carrots from the earth and washed them. I drew fresh water from the well. I poured a candle with the last of the tallow ... I tanned a hide ... I weaved a blanket for our winter beds. I combed my hair for lice ... I brought food to you and the horse."

This demanding life is the only one she knows. But the uneducated Young Woman has higher aspirations, and her awakening fascination with language—she struggles to comprehend the meaning of basic words such as "puddle" and "like"—indicate to her that there's a more rewarding life than serving a controlling brute like William. The attention she draws from Gilbert (Ross Beschler), the miller, a man who can actually read and write, lets her know that there may be a way out.

It's a premise that should give its actors a lot to work with. But this tale of simple people and their big passions is performed with very little passion. McLenigan and Beschler brood, but they seem constrained by their environment. And while Krause is earnest and committed, her Young Woman is too passive to be a completely satisfying heroine.

Where Knives in Hens scores is in its completely unique setting. Thom Weaver's set and lighting have transformed Exile's Studio X into a rustic environment, one that gives new meaning to the word "intimate." The floor is covered with dirt, hay, and wood chips, and the air is thick with mist. As the sun rises and sets and rises again, the light changes; sometimes it comes from overhead, sometimes it shines through slits in a wall, sometimes it come from a lone candle. The audience sits in two rows on either side of the action, squeezed in tightly on uncomfortable benches. (If you go, sit in the front row—you'll frequently have your view blocked in the second row, especially when the actors are crawling on the floor.)

Geffers' and Weaver's vision of Knives in Hens is engrossing. It's a shame that the play isn't illuminated by the care they have clearly spent on it. I was fascinated by Knives in Hens, but I still felt detached from it.

Knives in Hens runs through March 4, 2012, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $18 to $35 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-218-4022 or online at www.theatreexile.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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