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War and Peace

Time Stands Still looks at lives torn between the public and the private

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Beth Hylton and Eric Messner play damaged war corespondents

Time Stands Still

Written by Donald Margulies

At the Everyman Theatre through October 7

Like Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra , Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still seems to be about war in the Middle East but is actually about the tug-of-war between a career and a relationship. Whether one is a Roman general, an Egyptian queen, or an American war correspondent, one is often torn between the adrenaline rush of the battlefield and the sensuality of a shared bed in a comfortable home. Neither play chooses sides in this conflict between work and love; both are content to elucidate the gravitational pull of the opposing forces and the price to be paid for emphasizing one over the other.

In Margulies’ play, home is a loft apartment in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. When the hanging gray door of the freight elevator slides open to begin the show, we see two young journalists returning home from the war in Iraq. Sarah (Beth Hylton), a photographer in a khaki coat, leans on one crutch, her right arm in a sling, her left leg in a black brace, and the right side of her face melted by burn scars. The injuries of Jamey (Eric Messner), a reporter in a plaid shirt, are less obvious, but he got too close to a guerrilla explosion as well and is seeing a therapist in an effort to calm his jittery nerves.

As they matter-of-factly discuss their upcoming schedules of doctor appointments and book deadlines, they seem to be doing everything possible to get back to normal. But Margulies has a gift for allowing the subtext of realistic conversations to gradually break into the open, and it soon becomes clear that neither Sarah nor Jamey is accustomed to normal, not after spending most of their adult lives covering wars and tragedies on several continents.

Like Cleopatra, however, Jamey advocates for domesticity, arguing they should take it easy and stay home a while, maybe even get married. But Sarah, like Antony, resists such temptations as distractions from the important work to be done. She can hardly wait for her leg to heal and for her strobe light-triggering flashbacks to diminish so she can jump on a plane to Afghanistan.

Into this grim face-off, with its catalogue of horrifying war stories, confessions of past betrayals, and pleadings for second chances, comes comic relief. Stepping off the freight elevator, like Enobarbus and Charmian from Antony and Cleopatra, are an older man and a younger woman. Richard (James Whalen) is Sarah and Jamey’s editor at a magazine that resembles Vanity Fair, and Richard’s new girlfriend Mandy (Mandy Nicole Moore) is a perky “event planner.” Wearing flowery tights, with her blond hair cascading to her waist, Mandy is the butt of some very funny jokes in the first act. When Richard and Jamey make hipster references to the movie Brazil, she volunteers that she’s “never been to South America.” When she says that she sometimes does parties for nonprofit groups “pro bono,” she explains to the three experienced journalists that the phrase means “for no pay.”

As the play progresses, however, Mandy gradually claims a moral authority, not because she reveals hidden depths of intelligence—she is dimwitted from first to last—but because she embodies optimism and empathy that stand in stark contrast to the other three. When Sarah shows the group a photo of an Iraqi mother weeping over her dying son, Mandy asks Sarah why she didn’t put down the camera and try to save the child. Sarah recites the usual arguments about a journalist’s role in war, but because Mandy is so nonintellectual, those arguments are wasted on her, and her instinctive, emotional argument can find no rebuttal from the others. This is a very difficult thing to portray onstage—moral substance without intelligence—but Moore inhabits this seemingly thankless role, proving to be the best performance of the evening. Her concentrated focus allows her to be persuasive without ever seeming smarter than her character as written.

Richard, Sarah’s long-ago ex-lover, is willing to settle for domestic bliss with a sweet, uncomplicated woman like Mandy, but Jamey is not. He wants it all: a woman who’s at least as smart and talented as he is and who is willing to compromise her professional ambitions long enough to put down roots in a home and a marriage. Is that too much to ask? Sometimes Sarah says it is and sometimes she says it isn’t. And Margulies keeps us guessing about her final decision until the show’s penultimate scene.

Hylton is the only member of the cast with previous credits at Everyman (most notably And a Nightingale Sang and All My Sons ), and she does a good job of giving Sarah both the battle-hardened toughness and haunting memories of a war-zone photojournalist. She flinches and winces so suddenly at the slightest bumps that we never doubt the reality of her injuries. She’s less successful at establishing a sexual chemistry between Sarah and Jamey. The script asks us to believe that they can’t keep their hands off each other, no matter how painful the war wounds or how heated the argument—and neither Hylton nor Messner sells that notion.

This is the 19th time the Everyman Theatre has opened a new season at its Charles Street location. It’s also the last time, for the theater is moving to its new Fayette Street home in January. Three of those 19 seasons have begun with a Margulies play, and Everyman has developed a special connection with one of America’s best living playwrights. He has taken the regional-theater formula—small cast, one set, contemporary drama—and has breathed new life into it with real people, genuine laughs, and questions too knotty to be easily answered. One can only hope that he and Everyman will continue their relationship in the new space.

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