Saturday, July 2, 2016

At the front lines of the political and personal: "Time Stands Still" looks at the perils of journalism at war

Mandy and Richard huddle over the injured Sarah's images as James focuses on his own woes.
The title of the Donald Margulies play just finishing its run at Theatre on the Square refers to a wartime photographer's moments of truth.

Each click of the camera has the potential to produce an image that, when published, may check the onrush of events, however temporarily, for millions who see it at a safe remove.

But "Time Stands Still" also seems to refer to the photographer's inability to advance personally beyond the tenuous authority that making striking, sometimes appalling, images confers. There's something of this feeling of being stuck in how Sarah Goodwin chooses to come out of her recuperation from serious injuries sustained in the Iraq conflict.

The playwright sketches the highlights of Sarah's recovery process through her relationship with James Dodd, a reporter also specializing in foreign conflicts who's trying to put behind him less visible mental trauma that has required his withdrawal from the same arena. In the drama's eight-month span, they work through unresolved difficulties in their personal and professional lives while sharing living quarters in Brooklyn. Sometimes this is in the uneasy presence of visitors Richard Erlich, photo editor of a glossy magazine in which serious journalism fights for space amid the high-end ads and frivolous features, and his latest girlfriend, the much younger Mandy Bloom, a bubbly event-planner.

Gari Williams directs the production, with Cindy Phillips as Sarah, Dave Ruark as James, Ronn Johnston as Richard, and Katherine Shelton as Mandy. From her first entrance, Phillips conveys achingly what Sarah has been through: She's cranky, hurting, and proud. She chafes at James' solicitousness, which is supported by a hidden agenda only gradually revealed to us. There's clearly a sense that their jobs might have blocked happiness for them in any environment away from the action they've temporarily escaped from.

As it is, they've both seen too much. Flashbacks and PTSD are part of their daily diet  — the force-fed part — as they try to move on. The storied tradition of foreign correspondence in words and pictures is both nourishing and somewhat toxic. Richard, played by Johnston as the kind of nice guy who survives in New York magazine journalism by knowing exactly when to get tough and not going there too often, has a get-well present for Sarah (exquisitely wrapped by Mandy). It's a book by Robert Capa, the legendary 20th-century photographer, whose images of war have iconic status.

Near me as I write is a copy of "Madness Visible: A Memoir of War" by Janine Di Giovanni, an account of the 1990s Balkan troubles, rich in atrocities. One of her epigraphs consists of these words by Robert Capa, written in 1941 during the London blitz: "While shaving I had a conversation with myself about the incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging on to a tender soul at the same time."

This conflict is central to Sarah's recovery, and her eventual choice goes in the opposite direction from James. By that point, the couple has managed to produce a book about Iraq, midwifed by Richard, but hanging on to their tender souls is deeply in question. Some of the questions are raised, surprisingly, by Mandy, whose outbursts are nicely calibrated in Shelton's performance. Her tender soul is intact, but in the context of Sarah's and James' experiences, she seems ditsy at the outset, stunned by the journalists' dogged embrace of the world's horrors and a little too effervescent about the social value of event planning.

Margulies has engineered a set-up for Mandy's ethical objections to wartime journalism by making her seem out of her depth at first. He has to hustle her off to the bathroom so James and Sarah can mock her, teasing the defensive Richard. It's not implausible that Mandy could need the bathroom for as long as she does here, but the playwright has saddled the director with managing lots of talk about her that she is not supposed to overhear. The dialogue would have to be conducted in stage whispers for us to believe someone using the bathroom a dozen feet away would not catch the drift of the conversation. Richard shushes everyone at one point, but this scene seems a case of playwright manipulation for whose doubtful credibiity the director (as well as the set designer) must be held blameless.

I also boggled at James' long second-act rant about plays that deal with upsetting topics and the audiences that congratulate themselves on attending them. Ruark manages this almost O'Neillian verbosity well, but I'm trying to figure out why the play needs it. I guess it's meant to be the reporter's way of distancing himself from his guilt about having had to leave a war zone for psychological reasons: If you make theatergoers' interest in awful events look self-congratulatory, you can dodge moral accounting for your own involvement in them.

One thing the playwright gets right is to layer Sarah's outburst of guilt at her work of recording suffering instead of relieving it upon its deep-seated rewards. Contrary to superficial opinion, these aren't a matter of thrill-seeking.They rest on two supports the general public often doesn't understand. One of them is the war correspondents' implicit message to well-off viewers and readers: The sun that rose today on you and your comfortable life also rises on your fellow human beings in peril and distress. This is your world, too. For anyone to do something about it, it's first necessary to take a look, to listen, to know.

The other foundational pillar for the work that has nearly killed Sarah and sidelined James was enunciated long ago by the dean of foreign correspondents, Vincent Sheean. At the end of his classic memoir "Personal History," Sheean defends his work reporting from a host of danger zones by saying he needed to recognize history's "urgency and find my place in relation to it, in the hope that whatever I did (if indeed I could do anything) would at last integrate the one existence I possess into the many in which it had been cast."

Most of us are content merely to touch the existence of other people, integrating our own with only a few others. Journalists in general, but war correspondents in particular, need to get as closely bound to other people's lives as they possibly can, even if only briefly. The more different from them those people are and the more extreme their circumstances, the better. For those capable of it, it must be the greatest existential high, and "integration" is not too strong a word for it. That's what Sarah knows better than James, and why "Time Stands Still" suggests she must continue to have it.


 [Photo by Zach Rosing]