Early in Donald Margulies' gripping Time Stands Still, a New York City magazine editor references the deadly turmoil that permeates today's volatile world. "Something bad happens," he says, "everyone feels helpless. They want to do something." Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Dinner with Friends) may feel helpless too. But his response is to do what he does best: He has written a mature, thoughtful and incisive drama that mirrors our incendiary times.
Time Stands Still, whose St. Louis debut is being performed with breathtaking precision and nuance at Insight Theatre Company, initially focuses its lens on Sarah Goodwin (Jenni Ryan), an intrepid photojournalist who was maimed by an exploding land mine in Iraq. As the play begins, Sarah is returning to her Brooklyn loft with her long-time companion James (Chad Morris), a freelance foreign correspondent. Sarah's right arm is in a sling, her left leg is in a brace, her face resembles a Chinese checkers board. During the next year, many of Sarah's physical wounds will heal. But the play's prescient title suggests that some things never mend. Perhaps Sarah was most alive and vital in the moment before that mine detonated.
Because Margulies is an exponent of the well-crafted play, Sarah and James must be counterbalanced by characters who possess contrary traits. In time we meet Sarah's photo editor Richard (Jerry Vogel) and his guileless young girlfriend Mandy (Julia Crump). The disparate lifestyles of the two couples are in obvious contrast. "If it wasn't for people like me, the ones with the camera," Sarah insists, "who would know? Who would care?" But Mandy, who personifies security and complacency, finds this attitude unnerving. "You only see misery, both of you," she accuses Sarah and James.
The dialogue crackles with heft and immediacy. Yet to suggest that these four people spend nearly two hours debating the risks and responsibilities inherent in today's world is to shortchange the play, because these characters are not mere mouthpieces doing Margulies' bidding. Rather, they are full-blooded adults living out their lives as best they can, and we in the audience are allowed to eavesdrop. Indeed, at times what occurs on the Heagney Theatre stage is so intimate that a viewer almost feels like a peeping Tom. Yes, there are certain conventional types here — a strong woman who craves independence juxtaposed against an insecure man whose relevance depends upon being needed — yet the plot could go in any of a dozen different directions, thus making Time Stands Still a totally involving experience from beginning to end.
Director John Contini has staged the play with beautiful calibration. Too many local productions are torpedoed by lack of rehearsal time; they feel unfinished. Not so here. Every single minute is rich with tension or comedy or despair, yet nothing feels planned out or arbitrary. Michele Sansone's costumes are character-revelatory. (In Act One, Mandy's nooselike neck scarf is especially witty.) Mark Wilson's scenic design of a loft condo transforms the wide proscenium into a plus rather than a negative. The four performers — Ryan, Morris, Vogel and Crump — respond to this loving attention in the most exemplary manner. Even as they take all the time they need — the evening often feels urgent, but never rushed — the pace does not slacken.
Margulies is a quiet and civil dramatist, yet he has amassed an impressive body of character-driven plays. During the past decade, Brooklyn Boy, Collected Stories, What's Wrong With This Picture? and Dinner with Friends have all received outstanding stagings at local theaters. This week, thanks to Insight Theatre's compelling Time Stands Still, we are reminded anew of Margulies' modestly lofty stature as one of America's major playwrights.