Wellfleet — In a week that saw the world riveted by photos of a toddler whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach as he and his family fled war-torn Syria, a single image that captured the desperation of the refugee crisis in Europe, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater opened a stellar production of Donald Margulies’s 2010 Tony nominee “Time Stands Still,” a play that examines the personal cost of war through the eyes of a lauded photographer.
She is Sarah Goodwin (a compelling Shannon Koob) who as the play opens is returning to her Brooklyn loft after being injured by a roadside bomb while working in Iraq. She is tended to in her recovery by her longtime boyfriend James (John Long), also a journalist. His caring is almost solicitousness and soon we find out why: He feels guilty for having left the war zone, and Sarah’s side, after suffering a breakdown induced by the trauma of covering relentless combat.
Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for “Dinner With Friends,” captures the awkward dance of a couple trying regain domestic rhythms, haunted not just by the horrors they’ve witnessed but also by nagging questions about the responsibilities and ethics of journalists assigned to record atrocities for mass consumption. Despite such big themes, Margulies’s dialogue isn’t preachy. His naturalistic banter blends biting comedy with moving human drama, directed with subtlety by Michael Unger and beautifully delivered by the able cast. Christopher Ostrom’s scenic design uses projections of blurry war photography to powerful effect, and Peter Kater’s delicate music composition lends a mournful tone to the production.
“Time Stands Still” is a four-character play. Critical to the plot is the arrival of another couple. Magazine photo editor and Sarah’s long-ago ex, Richard (Graeme Malcolm), is enough of a friend and champion to chide Sarah and James that their conflicts and calamities make them “the Sid and Nancy of journalism.” Also in tow is Richard’s much younger new girlfriend, Mandy (Samantha Able), who arrives bearing a pair of Mylar balloons as a signal that she’s frivolous and out of her depth with the three older, serious world travelers.
Although Sarah teases Richard for his apparent desire to make his own passing time stand still, as the play progresses Mandy’s self-assuredness about her choices emerges as one of the play’s most emotionally resonant aspects. She’s a stand-in for much of the audience: She admires Sarah’s dedication and courage while admitting to compassion fatigue and gratitude that she lives in a part of the world where there’s food and a reasonable expectation of safety. She, and now Richard, simply want to find a little joy in life and what’s wrong with that?
James also begins to show battle scars as he turns from writing about refugees to penning a piece about horror movies, preferring the escapism of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to the real-life horror he’s witnessed far from home. But as she recovers from her wounds, Sarah admits she “can’t sit still.” There are allusions to her warring parents as if a deeper explanation is needed for the kind of journalist who is drawn to danger or needs to flee the comforts of a privileged life. Sarah is a complex combination of all that — artist and idealist and “a ghoul with a camera.” Sarah needs to keep moving; she knows time doesn’t stand still except in the frame of her camera.
Through each of these four characters, “Time Stands Still” explores questions of what it means to seek safety and find the courage to face life’s daily wars. Raising a child or falling in love is loaded with risk, maybe as much as flying to the Middle East to take a picture of one of the millions of war’s casualties.
Time Stands Still
By Donald Margulies. Directed by Michael Unger. Presented by Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Julie Harris Stage, Wellfleet, through Sept. 26. Tickets: $12-$45, 508-349-9428, www.what.org
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.