It isn’t just adrenaline that gives war correspondents a rush in the midst of mayhem.
The high also often comes from a sense of mission about increasing world awareness of the strife in bloody hot spots like Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza. And from doing a job which, as British TV reporter Alex Thomson affirmed to GQ Magazine, “is glamorous. No point pretending it’s not.”
Donald Margulies’ probing, valuable Broadway play “Time Stands Still” (which is getting a welcome, belated Seattle debut from ReAct Theatre) acknowledges the glamour and thrill, and the usefulness, of brave journalists putting themselves in harm’s way to cover war. (Eighty-eight of them died on the job in 2012 alone, according to one source.)
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But Margulies is always concerned with the nubby, everyday-to-day reality of his characters, as a context for their ethical dilemmas. So it is in the microcosm of an unraveling relationship between two war journalists — photographer Sarah and her writer lover James — that the play considers the emotional and physical costs, and the moral ambiguities, of their profession and war itself.
Enacted in David Hsieh’s articulate staging with edgy wariness by the striking Maria Knox, Sarah returns to her New York City apartment from another stint in war-torn Iraq. Her leg is badly injured and her face scarred from an IED bomb explosion. James (Brian Pucheu) attends lovingly to her physical needs and post-traumatic stress, and puts up with her sharp-tongued testiness.
Only when she talks about her work does Sarah’s hardened expression soften, her voice get dreamy. She describes a kind of Zen state of being, when “time stands still” as she points, clicks and records searing images of war and its victims.
James meanwhile is also nursing his own internal wounds, from PTSD and romantic betrayal. And while he hopes to create a satisfying life of relative normalcy on the homefront, it’s unclear if Sarah could ever find fulfillment out of harm’s way.
Margulies contrasts their struggles as a couple with the newfound happiness of their friend, magazine editor Richard (likable John Bianchi), and his bubbly, much-younger girlfriend (Sarah cuttingly calls her “embryonic”), Mandy (Mona Leach).
Mandy’s sunniness, humor (she provides most of the laughs, many unintended) and ignorance of world events is blatantly contrasted with Sarah’s jaded sophistication. But in a provocative exchange that resonates today, the not-so-naive Mandy defends her choice of opting out of the media’s endless stream of heartbreaking, gruesome news about global terror and conflict. And she effectively questions the morality of shoving a camera or a microphone in someone’s face as they suffer and grieve.
On a well-furbished set at UW Ethnic Cultural Theatre, the ReAct ably tracks how a troubled relationship can turn into a domestic minefield for those who bring us the “bang-bang” news. It’s another modern fine play the company has given a hearing here, and the acting is solid, especially from the restrained Knox, who doesn’t try to make the abrasive Sarah more likable, and Pucheu, whose inner turmoil rises to the surface gradually and movingly.
Though Bianchi and Leach are appealing, the faint cracks in their characters’ coupling and the serious challenges they, too, face are underplayed here. It’s not a case of a model happy pair versus an unhappy one. In love and war, time stands still for no one.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org