Romance in The Line of Fire

In Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies investigates the plight of warzone journalists

Mandy, Richard, James and Sarah looking at war zone photography | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

Journalists pay a high price for telling the truth about war. Chaos is confusing and dangerous; those in power prefer to act in secret. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Reporters Without Borders counts 586 journalists killed in combat zones. Just recently, on 22 Feb., Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin (56) and photographer Remi Ochlik (28) were killed by Syrian government shelling in the city of Homs. The American journalist had made it her speciality to report from the world’s most dangerous  places. It takes a special kind of person to do this work, who is willing to take on risk, even thriving on it. Danger can be addictive, and withdrawal agony.

This is the terrain of Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies’ 2009 drama now playing at Vienna’s English Theatre. After premiering at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, with further productions in New York City and Stockholm, Time Stands Still brings to Austria the universal questions of morality in wartime, in a play that can be seen as a power struggle over values in work and family life.

The play, masterfully written, is an incisive exploration of the nature of relationships in the face of change and analyses the consequences of bearing witness to real-life war. An obsessive drive to make a difference unites four strong characters: Sarah (Shannon Koob), a conflict photographer, James (Howard Nightingall), her beau and fellow journalist, Richard (Dave Moskin), long-time friend of the couple, and his naïve girlfriend Mandy (Carrie Getman), an attractive event planner less than half his age.

The play opens with Sarah returning to her Brooklyn home as the only survivor of a roadside bombing in Iraq, in which her fixer and translator Tariq was killed. Now burdened by guilt and frustration, she is torn between a desire to return to everyday life and the need to continue her work. Idealistic, hardened by danger, she thrives by living on the edge, a kind of adrenalin-junkie almost unbreakable in her pointed wit. James, though, once equally committed, has been deeply shaken by the brutality of civilian casualties, and feels his dreams of making a difference shattered, along with his nerves. Forced to withdraw, he is tormented by nightmares, and begins to long for a conventional and stable life.

Early on, we learn how determined the wounded Sarah is. Only a few months of rehab, she tells the others, and she’ll be back at the front. “You don’t expect me to sit around for a whole year,” she says in exasperation. Richard, her editor and one-time lover, is aghast. “But you almost died!” he protests. And to James, “You had a fucking breakdown!”

Sarah is torn: back to her job or on to a normal life with James? | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

“You don’t get it,” she shrugs. “You never did.” Her job is her calling. It has become such an integral part of her life that it is her identity. Is this an addiction to danger? Or can it be justified by the concept of “the greater good”?  These questions are the preoccupation of the play.

These people are at a crossroads, where a life together may require one or the other to betray their sense of self. Paradoxically, the work that brought them together in an East Jerusalem Hotel ten years earlier is what now separates them.

As for Richard and Mandy, their traditional relationship – affectionate, uncomplicated and frivolous – is “Sarah’s idea of a nightmare,” commented director Martin Platt in the interval. Where James and Sarah find meaning reporting on global conflict, Richard indulges in the simple pleasures of marriage, babies and ice cream with the much younger Mandy – a relationship Platt said he finds “easy to relate to.”

Mandy, originally played by Alicia Silverstone on Broadway with Laura Linney as Sarah, is a doe-eyed hopeless optimist, shocked by the atrocities of war and easily impressed by these well-travelled and courageous journalists. She is met with dry sarcasm by a passive-aggressive Sarah (“You could say I’m into events as well. You know, famines, wars, genocides…”). But Mandy, with all her limitations, is also genuine, and helps shed light on Sarah’s deeper issues.

In one particularly powerful scene, Sarah reveals her own profound questions about the moral implications of being a photojournalist. Browsing through her photos – powerful images of suffering in wartime – Mandy asks why Sarah doesn’t intercede to help the victims. How can she just stand there and photograph?

“The camera’s there to record life. Not change it,” Sarah answers. Her job is to observe and inform the wider world. But later, she remembers hearing a car bomb and rushing to the scene with her camera. As she stood there shooting, a woman emerged from the debris covered in burns, waving her arms and shouting, “Go way, go way! No picture, no picture!” and put her hand over Sarah’s lens. Later she noticed there was blood on her lens. “I have built a career on the sorrows of people I don’t know,” she realizes, probing – perhaps for the first time – whether her humanity might overtake her stance as an unbiased recorder of events.

Eventually, the balance of power shifts: When holding her newborn daughter, Mandy comes across as the most stable character of all. She dominates the set with steady, calm moves. Margulies is asking just who it is who has their priorities straight. Who is the stronger person? Whose values are more important? How should one live? The onstage friction manifests beautifully in the lines of love and jealousy, ultimately collapsing under its own weight as the final decisions are made.

This resolution is, however, the weakest part of the play; here the dialogue is stilted and awkward, the transitions too quick and poorly prepared. Aside from a lingering embrace, it was hard to comprehend Sarah’s true feeling of loss, despite Koob’s otherwise excellent portrayal.

Ending abruptly with James’ departure down the stairs, Sarah calls after him to be “careful!”, as she gets out her camera, stands on a chair and photographs him through the window. It all happens in a matter of seconds, dramatic but perhaps too fast to absorb. And confusing as the window was frosted glass.

With the help of a strong cast, the chemistry between Margulies’ characters is authentic. But there is no catharsis in Time Stands Still, neither relief nor comfort, only the vicious circle in pursuit of personal ideals. Like a journalist, this playwright’s goal is “to record life. Not change it.”

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