The camera is there to record life, not change it. A startling fact of life when dealing with war-torn unsettled countries; but in all facets of life, whether it is war or theatre, are not our recordings merely meant to document the ephemeral rather than shift the outcome? Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions presents Pulitzer Prize-Winning playwright Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still; a compelling drama that investigates the purpose and conflicts that arise from living the life of the observer in a world of terror. Directed by Stevie Zimmerman, this production is filled with unique symbolic shadows cast metaphorically and physically throughout the performance that reinforce Margulies’ messages.
Juxtaposing culture and chaos in a modern loft apartment in Brooklyn falls not on the shoulders of the set designer but rather to the Sound Designer. David G. Jung presets the show’s ambiance with quick-paced Middle Eastern music to hint at topical identity of the character’s backstory. The traumatic sounds of destruction that tear through this soundscape are horrific but realistic, slicing through it the way a moment of true danger cuts through the calm of an otherwise ordinary day.
Scenic Designer Jason W. Mann crafts the trendy loft that screams “post-modern hipster” with a defunct sense of materialism. Mann’s set is sparsely furnished but that threads the believability factor of Jamie and Sarah’s lifestyle into its space. His use of spatial arrangement, between the divider screens near the entrance and the angling of the bed further off-stage but still visible gives the place a larger appearance than t he physical space allows for.
Sculpture Designer Lylie Fisher and Lighting Designer Peter Caress, do something extraordinary with what at first appear to be artistic figures hung about the loft apartment for decorative purposes. Fisher has designed the tangle of briary brambles over the main dining section and the distorted lumps of brassy copper over the bedroom, which appear to be little more than interpretive art pieces until Caress sets the lights on them and they cast shadows onto the scrim of the loft’s back walls. The metal amalgamations near the bedroom area look like the warped disfigured faces once seen in shadow, meant to represent the twisted reality witnessed in the war torn countries where Sarah and Jamie have spent most of their lives, while the bunching of tangled wires is a representation of their confused and jumbled paths and how lost they are upon them when the audience finds them at the start of the play. This is a unique and brilliant design element that infuses a heavy dose of symbolism into the performance.
Caress creates striking lighting throughout the production in addition to highlighting the silhouette projections. The moment when Sarah and Jamie attempt to rekindle their relationship in the bedroom is breathtaking with a strong fade into blue night and moonlight angling down from an unseen skylight. The flickering patterns used to replicate Jamie watching horror films on the TV has an authenticity to it as well, making Caress’ design work believable.
Director Stevie Zimmerman is out to capture truth with this performance, not stage it. Letting the actors represent the dynamic characters in more subtler fashions rather than taking them over the top keeps the audience guessing about how they really feel, what they are thinking, and where the story is going. There is something slightly off-putting about the pacing of the play, though it is hardly long enough to say that it drags nor does it feel too quick. Zimmerman may be trying to capture time as well with some of the briefer pauses throughout the performance but these fall in strange manners and just feel odd.
It’s the bubby simplicity of Mandy Bloom (Chelsea Mayo) that stands out amid the doom and gloom that overhangs the production. Mayo’s character reads as obnoxious at first, but she grows on you after a spell. Her honest representation is simplistic, which should not be though might easily be misconstrued as unintelligent, and it brings a lightness to the performance. There is a recognizable transformation in Mayo’s performance as well; progressing from nervous perky twit to a more mellow but still optimistic and mature character. Her earnest confession about not wishing to be sad and noting that the average person can do little with what Sarah expects her photographs to do is stunning.
Richard (Jim Epstein) is the outcast among the four. The replica of living the dream as he settles down with Mandy, a girl easily half his age. Epstein’s seasoned look makes the age disparity between his character and Mandy’s that much more shocking and disconcerting, particularly when certain plot points are revealed later in the performance. His temperament is even and there are moments when Epstein finds a real vibrant nature in this otherwise dull and slightly static character.
Sarah (Aly B. Ettman) and Jamie (Aaron Tone) are the main focal point of the performance. Both have their baggage, both have their own personal turmoil and soul-searching to do as a result of their time spent in the war-torn countries of the Middle East. Ettman and Tone have an unconventional chemistry that right from the moment they sit together on the couch screams that there is distance between them despite the premise that they are long-term lovers. This subtle infusion of dissonance in their interactions makes the build of their potential destruction that much more viable as the play progresses.
Tone, as the shell-shocked journalist, has a calmer manner about him and grows into his outbursts. The emotions become heavy in a hurry for his character and when they come surging out during moments of striking confession they are powerful and felt across the audience in crushing waves. Ettman takes the opposite path, starting out a bit more fiery and mouthy and ending with a much more subdued and jaded outlook on the world. Her physical approach to the character is outstanding as well, the slow shifts from completely immobile to limping as she heals noteworthy for their accuracy.
Ettman addresses the character of Sarah with a clinical detachment that at first feels emotionally limited but as the scenes unfolds it is painstakingly realized that this is the epitome of perfection in regards to performance choices for this character’s demons. Her bitter jaded persona reads deeper than the surface deadpan and disinterest that is initially perceived and Ettman does an excellent job of finding little moments wherein fissures in her resolve result in glimpses of her vulnerability.
A profound message that speaks globally is what the play unearths and the performers deliver that message with a firm grounding in realistic truth. A performance worth seeing because of the thoughts it leaves pressing hard in your head.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 5 minutes with one intermission
Time Stands Still plays through March 29, 2015 at Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions located at Theatre on the Run— 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, VA. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance online.