Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Time Stands Still' Provides Moving Look at Life, Love, Pain and the Pursuit of War Zone Photography -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Time Stands Still
by Donald Margulies
directed by Georgette Verdin
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at the Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru June 11

As Time Stands Still begins--per a fine local production by Aston Rep of the Tony-nominated play by Donald Margulies--considerable time has already elapsed from the events that will acutely shape its narrative.

With a man named James (Robert Tobin) helping his girlfriend of several years, Sarah (Sara Pavlak McGuire), into their New York apartment, her facial scars, damaged leg and arm-in-a-sling let us know that she has survived --with lucidity intact--and somewhat recuperated from a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq while on a photo assignment.

Within a few minutes, we also understand that he too is a war journalist--a writer to her photographer--who was compelled by the ravages and dangers of what he experienced to return home, with ever-increased guilt, just weeks before the incident that maimed her and caused nearby casualties.

These episodes are central to everything that unfolds onstage, with Margulies focusing more overtly on the characters trying to move forward, even as the past is ever-present.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Under the direction of Georgette Verdin, the play is as much observational--in depicting how the central couple strives, and struggles, to regain a sense of normalcy after such shattering events--as it is overtly dramatic and tension-filled.

In fact, the play's other two characters--Richard (Rob Frankel), a magazine editor for whom Sarah worked, and his young, attractive, new girlfriend Mandy (Kirra Silver)--seem to exist largely to provide a dramatic refuge from the hard-to-enunciate discomfiture between James and Sarah.

While Sarah's lashing out at Richard for "robbing the cradle" feels fairly routine and even a bit distracting from the primary thread, far more pointed and compelling is Mandy's challenging Sarah over her instincts to photograph victims, rather than to aid them. I actually thought this, and a couple other confrontational strains, might well have gotten even more intense.

I also found the exploration of vocations of passion that people opt to pursue--even in the face of obstacles, including possibly life-threatening ones--to be rather resonant, not just regarding the perspectives of Sarah and James within the play, but in watching actors from a small Chicago ensemble (and even as pertinent to my own life).

Despite the title, Time Stands Still--which runs about 2 hours with an intermission--is well-paced and holds one's attention throughout.

Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends--though I recall being lukewarm about a Goodman production of it several years back--is clearly a professional playwright, and especially for just $20 per ticket, this production feels like quintessential "local theater."

Aspen Rep has become one of my favorite Chicago troupes in recent years, and as usual the actors here are all demonstrably good.

Tobin, who is Aston Rep's Artistic Director, and McGuire, an ensemble member, feel quite genuine as the main couple, especially in roles necessitating considerable emotional ambiguity. (I imagine unease is hard to portray naturally without it seeming too much like "actors acting.")

Though I felt the Richard character was the least compelling--his perspectives on Sarah, James, journalistic decisions and his own relationships seem a bit middling rather than forceful--Frankel clearly plays him well as written.

And recent Northwestern grad Silver brings palpable freshness to the proceedings, not simply in her embodiment of the guileless Mandy, but in terms of intangible stage presence.

In the theater, I didn't perceive Time Stands Still to quite be a brilliant play; I never felt that tingle of wondering what might unfold.

But it prompted a nice discussion afterward, and I do appreciate that sometimes the storylines that don't dazzle with overt theatricality are the ones that hit closer to home.

For the big questions of life are rarely answered with precision, and never within a 2-hour span.

Time Stands Still had its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf in 2012, but though I see many shows there I didn't get to it. I have tremendous regard for the quality of Steppenwolf's productions--and recommend you read the typically illuminating program notes that their recently passed former Artistic Director, Martha Lavey, wrote about this play--but it's to Aston Rep's great credit that I feel they provided the full essence of Margulies' work.

You may like it a bit more than me, or perhaps a bit less; either way this should be taken as a wholehearted recommendation.

Within the comfortable confines of the Raven Theatre complex, with easy parking in an adjoining lot, for a rather value-packed price--and possibly even less through HotTix and Goldstar--Time Stands Still should at the very least provide a couple hours of low-hassle, high-quality Chicago theater.

...and may even make you think for quite a spell longer. 

No comments: