The new Broadway hit, “Time Stands Still,” written by Donald Margulies and directed by Daniel Sullivan, is a simple story and an elegant portrayal of the major predicaments of modern life. The play focuses on two ambitious humanitarian professionals who are thrown into an unexpected and reflection-rousing reprieve from routine that quickly becomes a significant turning point in their lives. There are four characters total, and it is the dialogue and interplay between them, more than any exciting plot-line, that lays bare the contradictions we all face in a globalized world where both opportunity and suffering abound. The specific questions confronting the characters – how to make a difference in the world, how to remain motivated, how to feel fulfilled, how to balance one’s focus between the negative and the positive – are questions that have long featured prominently in my own life and surely in the lives of other ambitious young people the world over. These are questions to which we have yet to find satisfactory answers as a society, questions that form and inform each individual struggle to find her or his place in the world. They are, in short, the questions of our time.
The believability of “Time Stands Still” is thanks in no small part to the superb performances given by Laura Linney as Sarah, Brian d’Arcy James as James, Eric Bogosian as Richard, and Christina Ricci as Mandy. The play opens when Sarah and James, a photographer and journalist respectively and an unmarried couple of nine years, return to their Brooklyn loft from an overseas assignment after Sarah almost loses her life. She is lucky to have sustained only an injury but frustrated to be out of commission for an unforeseen number of months. Sarah and James quickly reunite with their fifty-something friend, Richard, whose perky new twenty-something girlfriend, Mandy, finds herself immediately at odds with the intensely realist Sarah.
Forced by Sarah’s injury to spend time laying low, and confronted by Mandy’s insistently positive focus on domestic happiness, Sarah and James begin to recognize and express doubts about their capacity to make a positive difference in the world through their respective professional pursuits. They also begin to realize that they no longer want the same things. James finds himself longing for family life, while Sarah still craves the excitement of her career. In the end, after a brief attempt at marriage that is, for Sarah, a futile exercise in taming her wild spirit, they go their separate ways.
Laura and James each derive their professional commitment and motivation from the notion that they are fulfilling a lofty mission, doing good in the world by spreading awareness of the suffering in underdeveloped and war-torn regions. Yet, as we discover throughout the play, neither of them has an entirely uncomplicated relationship with this grand idea of their place in – and impact on – the world. James can hardly get his articles published in the bloated media where he is forced to compete with the likes of celebrity news stories and fashion pieces. The controversial nature of Sarah’s role as a photographer is highlighted both when Mandy angrily condemns the passivity of taking pictures of people suffering rather than actively helping them, and when Sarah herself reveals a vivid memory of an angry subject yelling at her to stop photographing the community at its lowest point. Neither Sarah nor James is entirely ready to relinquish the mantra of serving the greater good that has so long fueled their lives, but their convictions start to shake as rumblings of doubt surface from the depths where they have long lurked beyond serious acknowledgement.
Mandy’s frustration with what she sees as James’ and Sarah’s hyper-focus on the negative aspects of humanity also forces the couple to confront the broad dilemma of how to interpret a world that is not as black-and-white (perhaps black especially) as they have allowed themselves to believe. One particularly heated scene ends with Mandy, on her way out the door, inciting James to pay attention to all of “the joy” in the world. Indeed, we can see that while James and Sarah have long been caught up in attempting to awaken people to oft-overlooked suffering around the globe, they themselves have overlooked not only the volume of bad news that confronts most people on a daily basis but also the (reasonably limited) capacity most people have for absorbing negativity. We have to wonder: does the world need another Sarah to show pictures of misery, another James to describe the despair in detail? And most importantly: confronted with the knowledge of suffering, do any of us believe there are actions we can take on an individual level to make a sufficient difference anyway? What if it’s just too depressing to pay rigorous attention to all the problems we cannot fix? What if it’s counterproductive?
Tellingly, though Sarah and James never find final, uncomplicated answers to these and other questions, they are both ultimately compelled to follow their hearts and needs into the next chapter of life. James, by choosing a more settled existence, and Sarah, by choosing to charge full-steam back into her international photography career, each opt for a lifestyle that will allow for true personal fulfillment. And since they have drawn a blank at determining what lifestyle would do the most “objective good” for the world, it is no wonder they revert to referencing their own instinctive needs. Neither has abandoned an awareness of the world at large, of the need to work in service to the greater good of humanity if and when possible – but both have gained a more nuanced awareness of their own place in the picture. Time may have stood still long enough for them to do so, but at the end of the day – and the end of the play – it rushes ever forward, before we have a chance to answer all the questions and solve all the quandries.