Chicago Theatre Review
Steppenwolf’s “Time Stands Still” is Not to Be Missed
Time Stands Still, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
January 19-May 13, 2012
Tickets $20-$78, student discounts available
Time Stands Still is not what you expect; it is much more.
Review by Darcy Rose Coussens
I expected this to be a play about the war in Iraq. I was prepared for politics and horror. I supposed I would leave with that self-indulgent feeling that I am supporting and experiencing art that promotes awareness of some injustice (a feeling one character denounces in an ironic diatribe against theatre). I expected this play to be about pictures, the photographs taken by a photojournalist in a war zone.
I was wrong. This play is not about Iraq, and it is not about pictures. These topics are certainly important to the story, but Time Stands Still plunges past them and investigates the heart of any story: the people.
“I live off the suffering of strangers,” admits Sarah (the bold and commanding Sally Murphy, Steppenwolf ensemble member), a photojournalist home from Iraq where she was injured by a roadside bomb. Devoted to her work, she believes she is helping the world by recording and sharing the graphic results of global conflict. The audience is transfixed by vivid descriptions of photos we never see, but we don’t need to see them. Instead, we see how Sarah resolutely refuses to be affected by them, keeping a lens between herself and the world as she fuels her addiction to the drama of war.
The detailed and realistic set of Sarah’s apartment is revealing about her life, and the sound and makeup design were notable, as well. Completing the remarkable and often quite funny cast are Randall Newsome, Kristina Valada-Viars, and Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan. A writer who also covers perilous situations in the world, Jamie (Newsome) has been Sarah’s significant other for several years, though they never married. His heartbreaking compassion and forgiveness intimately reminded me of my own loved ones, those who take care of me and love me even when I don’t understand how they can.
Their relationship is a comfortable but painful one as they each develop contrasting desires for their lives. Sarah unbelievably wants to return to the Middle East once she recovers, while Jamie has adjusted to a life at home. “I don’t need to dodge bullets to feel alive anymore, watch children die,” he explains, and you can’t blame the man. “I want to watch children grow.”
The writing is extremely articulate and sprinkled generously with witty humor. Little gems of truth are casually delivered, usually by the couple’s friend Mandy. In this role, Valada-Viars pulls off a loveable balance of the simple-minded genius, making us reconsider our judgment of others and offering a relatable viewpoint for most of us in the audience. Mandy alone finds it disturbing that Sarah does not help the people she photographs, but such is the reality of photojournalism: “The camera is there to record things, not change them,” Sarah states without emotion.
This play considers media, art, egos, gender roles, motherhood and most of all, relationships. Playwright David Margulies and Director/Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton expertly weave these important themes together without overloading the audience. You will leave this show in discussion, even if you do not stay for Steppenwolf’s free post-show discussion. You will ponder it, consider it, sleep on it, and continue to be affected by it. Time Stands Still offers plenty of tough questions without hard and fast answers, forcing us to face problems that are removed from our daily lives and to ask ourselves: what can any of us actually do about them?
You will reach one conclusion, however. After seeing Time Stands Still, you will have no doubt that this play is important. With this production, Steppenwolf proves that theatre is a social service, one that motivates and challenges its audiences to fully experience life, both the horror as well as the beauty and the joy. “Otherwise,” as Mandy tells us, “what’s the point?”