I hear a lot of people saying they wish they saw more positive news stories — that they’re tired of the gruesome, sad pieces they read online, or see on TV, about war and disease-stricken countries. I’m not going to lie and say that I enjoy those types of stories, though I do think they’re important. But maybe, as a journalist, I’m biased.
This tension, between telling tough stories and leading a normal life, clashes within Sarah Goodwin, one of the main characters in Time Stands Still. The play, directed by James Aday at Very Little Theatre, steps into the lives of four people: Sarah, a warzone photojournalist returning home after being injured by a roadside bomb; her boyfriend, James, also a journalist; Sarah’s photo editor, Richard; and his new young, bubbly girlfriend, Mandy.
In the second act, Richard and Mandy sit on the couch in Sarah and James’ realistically cramped New York studio apartment looking at Sarah’s photos a few days after her return. Mandy comes across a photo of a woman crying over a badly burned child. Shocked, she asks Sarah if the child was dead.
“Not yet,” Sarah replies. “He was in shock. He died a few minutes later.” Mandy badgers Sarah, questioning her morals in conjunction with her career, asking why she didn’t do anything more to help save the child. Sarah responds that she was helping, by taking his picture and telling his story.
Journalists, Sarah continues, are there to “record life. Not change it.”
Time Stands Still covers a mish-mash of topics — journalistic ethics, PTSD, infidelity and perfectionism, to list a few. But, surprisingly, instead of feeling like it shoves too many subjects into its plot, Time Stands Still stays relevant and engaging.
Sarah and James’ relationship, although bound by journalism, can be applied to any work-obsessed couple. Does it thrive solely because of their mutual enjoyment of traveling the world to pin down the toughest stories? Or can it survive beyond that, into the sleepy contentment of a “normal” life?
Although suffering the same blunders that many opening night productions do — a few slipped lines, some awkwardly acted conversations — as a whole, Time Stands Still is so well-written that any miscues were overshadowed.
At times the set, designed by Lizzy Baggins in VLT’s small Stage Left, seems to melt away. The minute details, such as exotic-looking tapestries hanging on the walls — potentially gathered by Sarah and James from a trip abroad — and a mini-fridge filled with last week’s take-out and adorned with magnets and old photographs, make the fights around the small kitchen table, the reconciliations, the love — both platonic and romantic — seem plausible. At points it feels as though we, as an audience, are voyeurs, peeking into the apartment window and into the intimate relationships of strangers.
The way in which the characters are written nurtures this authenticity. The strongest character is the jaded, stubborn and painstakingly passionate Sarah (Kari Boldon Welch), balanced brilliantly by the at-first spacey but eventually loveable and confident Mandy (Sarah Glidden). The male characters, James (Damon Noyes) and Richard (Joel Albrecht), although slightly second-rung to the women, are still dimensional and dynamic, hot-blooded when needed but always well intentioned.
Time Stands Still is not only a pleasant theatrical expedition but also a self-aware journey that inherently holds a mirror up to its audience. It acknowledges the absurdity of walking the tightrope between desire and necessity, career and personal life, comfort and danger — and the hypocrisy of criticizing the negative news that we all passively view as privileged Americans.
And as I watched James accusing Sarah of thriving off the pain of other people, I couldn’t help but think that we all are not so innocent of that either.
Time Stands Still runs at 7:30 pm May 11-14 at Very Little Theatre (2350 Hilyard St.) Tickets are $12 at TheVLT.com.