The horrors and wounds of war pervade the homefront in Donald Margulies’ gripping 2010 Tony Award-nominated drama “Time Stands Still,” a compelling character study about relationships, career and worldviews currently receiving an excellent local premiere at the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Living “on the sorrow of strangers,” accomplished photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (a dynamically passionate Cassandra Engber) returns from Afghanistan physically and emotionally scarred having survived complications from a roadside bomb. However, recuperating inside her Brooklyn loft (marvelously designed with eye-catching personality by Blake Senseman) becomes problematic when her longtime live-in boyfriend/freelance writer James Dodd (an effortlessly firm Alex Carmichal) disagrees with her decision to take on another assignment nearby. Encouraged by her editor Richard Ehrlich (an affable David Hallowren) and his sunny younger girlfriend Mandy Bloom (a top-notch Kelli Locker), Sarah feels comfortable about stepping back behind the camera to aid a worthwhile story. But it’s not just the assignment causing friction for Sarah and James. The real turbulence stems from Sarah’s romantic indiscretion in Afghanistan with her interpreter Tarek, a revelation that smoothly propels Margulies’ thought-provoking tug of war to heartbreaking degrees.
Having recently seen the magnificent Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” I’m reminded of how powerful it is for a playwright to create a silent character who lingers in the mind while serving as a launching pad for conflict. Amanda Wingfield and her troubled offspring are forever encumbered by the painful memories of the unseen husband and father who “fell in love with long distance.” In Margulies’ equally dysfunctional exploration of memory, Tarek is the invisible catalyst that rips Sarah and James apart although he isn’t entirely to blame. It’s totally apparent the duo may not have been perfect for each other in the first place. Prone to bickering and misreading, Sarah and James seem to be part-time soul mates. James wants kids and marriage. Sarah, deep down on the inside, prefers adventure and independence. They want to make their relationship work, but it’s not borne of a healthy desire to be fully compatible. Even when Sarah ridicules James for wavering in his writing pursuits she takes on the persona of a scolding mother. I’m sure the duo longs to be happy and values the idea of being together forever, but without the ability to recognize each other’s faults and be absolutely supportive their relationship will continue to disintegrate into a series of dead ends.
Splendidly guided by director Debra Kent, Engber and Carmichal, who should be among the first actors to receive resident artist status if the Guild ever chooses to go that route, are utterly captivating and combative. Engber, just as good as Laura Linney who originated the role, particularly impresses while professing Sarah’s Act Two agony of remaining true to her profession as death and decay literally stare her in the face. Carmichal, astutely emphasizing James lackadaisical, slacker qualities, rises to the occasion with volatile verve early in Act Two as a drunk James erupts while arguing with Mandy. Hallowren effectively engages as the underwritten yet concerned Richard. Locker discovers meaningful layers within the seemingly naïve Mandy instead of resigning the character to a one-dimensional existence.
Additionally, Kent’s exemplary creative team includes lighting designer David Corson, costumer Linda Sellers, prop masters Senseman and Deidre Bay Root, sound designer K.L. Storer, and makeup/wig designer Patrick Hayes. What a specific pleasure it is to know this production involves Corson, a University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music student whose phenomenal lighting of Centerville High School’s “Sweeney Todd” last season ranked on par with the best lighting designs on Broadway. Corson’s contributions are more subtle here, but his decision to open certain scenes with illuminated laptops is a wonderfully contemporary, introspective touch. Also, Senseman and Root sprinkle Sarah and James’ loft with a vivid assortment of artifacts as well as a mounted bicycle and a weather trunk as a coffee table. Storer is particularly responsible for compiling one of the best soundtracks I have heard at the Guild to accompany scene changes.
“We’re supposed to capture the truth – not stage it,” says a defiant Sarah in defense of her career. Thanks to the Guild, the truth has never felt so real.
“Time Stands Still” continues through Oct. 20 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two: 53 minutes. Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and $11 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org