It’s not enough to be good at your craft. You have to be good at your relationship, too. That’s more than photojournalist Sarah can handle in Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still. But who can blame her? Her face and body are collaterally damaged on assignment overseas, and when her journalist boyfriend James brings her home, walking cane, bandages and all, he’s hovering lover her like one of those choppers back in the war zone.
But is Sarah too obsessed with her work for a meaningful relationship (or marriage, which James decides he wants)? Or is James, who’s replaced his own emotional scars from covering the world’s ugliness with cooking and watching old movies on Netflix, unreasonably trying to change Sarah? These are the uneasy and paramount questions of Marguiles’ 2009 play, which is getting a snappy and intelligently realized production at the North Coast Rep under the direction of David Ellenstein. The cast of four is led by New Yorker Mhari Sandoval as Sarah, a role played on Broadway by Laura Linney. Sandoval projects all the grit and passion of a hardened photojournalist, one for whom time stands still, as the title goes, when her critical image is in focus. As James, Francis Gercke exudes the appropriate concern and exasperation, though the character itself seems no match for Sarah in intensity. John Nutten and Stacey Hardke lighten the domestic drama (when not comically heightening it) as editor Richard and events planner/eventual supermom Mandy, whose May-December romance is as dewy-eyed as Sarah and James’ is desperate.
The foibles of love and commitment aside, Time Stands Still stands tallest when its inhabitants compel us to confront the questions of a journalist’s role (whether to document the dark world or to try to change it) and whether it is better to accept grim reality and brood about it or to take Mandy’s attitude that lemonade can be made out of lemons. My words, not hers, but you get the idea. Margulies’ smart script proffers no pat answers. Nor does the North Coast Rep staging force any upon us. You can easily foresee the play’s resolution, but getting to it is a thought-provoking exercise.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.