Photographers are a weird and wonderful breed of human being—especially those who travel to exotic and dangerous locations to snap their pix. And without a doubt, war photographers are the most unusual of all, pointing cameras in situations where everybody else is aiming guns.
This is the profession that is brought into sharp focus in Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies, now at Dobama Theatre. In this exquisitely rendered production, directed by Nathan Motta, we see what drives these adrenaline-junkie shutterbugs, how their job ignites moral quandaries, and the toll their passion can take on personal lives.
Aside from the intricate philosophical issues Margulies explores, the play resonates with remarkable urgency given the current state of world affairs. As the president and Congress decide at this very moment whether to conduct a military action against Syria, the stakes of war and peace could scarcely be higher.
Sarah is an experienced photographer of the world's seemingly endless wars, and is returning home to the Brooklyn loft she shares with her partner James, a war correspondent. But this is no grand homecoming as she has been seriously wounded from face to foot by a bomb that exploded under her vehicle in Iraq.
James has been home for a while, having been traumatized by a particularly awful incident in that same war zone. He is working on a book and now serving as caretaker for his long-term squeeze Sarah.
Soon, they are visited by Sarah's 50-something photo editor Richard, who brings along his new and very young gal pal Mandy. The moment Mandy enters the flat carrying "Welcome Home!" and "Get Well!" helium balloons, Sarah's baleful gaze signals that this recuperation isn't going to proceed smoothly.
And indeed it doesn't as Sarah and James find themselves at odds with each other, and with their chosen journalistic endeavors. James is tired of all the danger and just wants to live comfortably. Sarah still wants to be where the action is, even at personal risk. But she is conflicted, recognizing that, "I live off the suffering of strangers."
While the insertion of the May-December romance between Richard and Mandy seems initially like a predictable comic device, it turns out to be more nuanced. The initially air-headed Mandy actually displays depth under her giggly girlishness, and Llewie Nunez nails this multi-layered role to perfection.
For his part, Richard (a thoroughly believable Peter Aylward) is a man goofily head-over-heels in love with Mandy and completely supportive of Sarah. But he resists James' facile criticism when James learns that a heavy news article of his has been bumped for a frothy feature on Hollywood.
When Richard lays out the commercial realities of the magazine world, it signals the many hard decisions that abound in this play. Those build to the most difficult choices of all: What will James and Sarah do with their jobs and their relationship? This is all worked out in the year or two that the play covers, and while none of the results are surprising they are totally involving.
As James, David Burgher conveys the simple desires of an average guy without coming off as a wimp or a whiner. He just wants a home and a family without simultaneously having to dodge shrapnel, a most relatable wish.
But the play centers on Sarah, and Heather Anderson Boll gives this role every ounce of blood and sinew it requires. She uses her strong, chiseled face to great effect, at times capturing the haunting power of the woman in Dorothea Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" photograph.
Boll is magnificent in a play that never takes the easy way out, making us think about the decisions we make—not to mention those that are being made for us. That's' a heady brew for any play, and this Dobama production delivers it superbly.