Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Time Stands Still
Steppenwolf Theatre

Also see John's reviews of The Houdini Box and Gypsy

Francis Guinan and Sally Murphy
Donald Margulies' play, which was part of the Manhattan Theatre Club's 2010-11 season, opens in a dark loft apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Even after the photojournalist Sarah Goodwin enters—on crutches and bearing facial cuts from serious injuries incurred while covering the war in Iraq—the lights are off for some time. With the slow pace and quiet tone established by director Austin Pendleton, there's a stillness in the staging that contrasts starkly with the memories of war owned by Sarah and her romantic partner James Dodd, also a journalist with war experience. The two—Sarah, particularly—have made a career of war journalism. James returned home to New York ahead of Sarah after he suffered a nervous breakdown following a traumatic experience. Sarah suffered nearly fatal injuries not long after and, after a comatose period in a German hospital, is back home for a lengthy recuperation.

The quiet, trendy and meticulously decorated loft seems completely removed from the war, as distant or non-existent as the war is for most of us in the U.S. The war is very real for Sarah and James, though. As the play develops, we see that James is ready to put the war behind him while Sarah may not be ready for that. James has come to desire a quiet domestic life, like their friend and editor Richard is pursuing with his young fiancée Mandy. Whether Sarah will want the domestic life James desires and stay decide to stay in the States is the primary question of the play, but it also asks in a number of ways if and how we can distance ourselves from the reality of war and its horrors. Early on, Sarah is asked by Mandy how it was possible for Sarah not to intervene when photographing atrocities. Sarah explains her detachment by saying "time stops" when she's taking a shot, but a bigger, unspoken question raised may be how can any of us in the security of the U.S. ignore the reality of the violence in our foreign wars? How do we reconcile the existence of pain as well as beauty in the world, and is it immoral to enjoy the good in life even as horrendous things are happening in other regions?

Pendleton's cast brings Margulies' characters and questions to life with subtle and realistic performances. Sally Murphy makes a remarkable and gradual transformation from emotionally damaged and severely injured to healthy and ready return to work, over scenes that encompass a period of a year. Her Sarah is a hardened woman, with little patience for those who seek easier answers—a quality she never loses even through her recovery. Her partner James (they've lived together unmarried for many years) is a complex character, going through a crisis of confidence caused by career problems as well as the trauma of war and the uncertainties of his relationship with Sarah. He finds some escape in viewing old horror movies and a market for his literary skills by writing about them. Randall Newsome captures all of these aspects of James heartbreakingly. Francis Guinan is the editor Richard, whose relationship to his longtime friends Sarah and James is being challenged by changes in his personal life with Mandy as well as the economic realities of the publishing world. Guinan masterfully manages the conflicts between Richard's desire to be cordial to his old friends while navigating the challenges of their growing apart. Kristina Valada-Viars successfully plays Mandy as a deeper and more layered person than the immature and inconsequential person Sarah believes her to be.

When James is viewing or discussing horror films, it seems Margulies may be asking why Americans are attracted to this non-threatening depiction of violence. Is this a way of acknowledging its existence without having to stop it? Or do we have a need for it? Marguiles' very quiet play, thanks to the sensitive acting and direction on the highly detailed and realistic set by Walt Spangler, makes the wars and these questions feel very close to home.

Time Stands Still will be performed at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through May 13, 2012. For tickets, visit the Box Office, call 312-335-1650 or visit

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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