Solana Beach, CA—I am in constant awe of war correspondent Richard Engle. It seems that wherever there is a skirmish (and I use the word cautiously) anywhere around the world his is the face I see reporting on it. He is the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News and just as recently as December of 2112 he and three of his crew members were taken hostage in Syria and held in captivity for five days before they were set free.
Before that he was Middle East correspondent, for five years, covering the war in Iraq from Bagdad (being Jewish he could have really been in serious trouble over there but trudged along at all costs) and later from Jerusalem. His newest book, War Journal: My Five Years In Iraq was published in 2008.
In playwright Donald Margulies’ most recent play, “Time Stands Still” now in a West Coast premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, photojournalist Sarah and her long time free lance journalist buddy Jamie (Mhari Sandoval and Francis Gercke) are just returning home from yet another wartime assignment. She was badly wounded and nearly lost her life. He was already back in the states having suffered a near breakdown but went back to bring her shattered bones home when we meet up with them.
Playwright Donald Margulies, noted for “Dinner With Friends”, “Sight Unseen”, “Collected Stories”, and “Shipwrecked” to name just a few that have also been produced at North Coast Repertory Theatre, under director David Ellenstein, has a wonderful penchant for bringing out the best and the worst in his character’s.
In “Time Stands Still” he introduces us to these two flawed, lonesome and shattered people, James and Sarah. He does it in a way that brings home the horrors of war, the painstaking sufferings of recovery, the distresses of letting go and the misery of those time embattled photo’s that will some day make it to the pages of a ‘coffee table’ book along with, perhaps, a story.
The sixty four thousand dollar question that comes up over and over again in his play and perhaps for every war correspondent and journalist is, was their obligation to the shocked and distressed victims and their families or was it to themselves to get the best shots, the best story and the most gory mess there was to be seen? Could they have done better to ease the pain or even given these victims the privacy and dignity they should have had or was their obligation to the story, the paper and to management?
Frankly, a case could have been made for either and under Ellenstein’s careful direction the story unfolds in Sara’s Williamsburg apartment over a period of six months (Marty Burnett has gone and done it again with his fine appointments in the one bedroom flat with all the accoutrements in working order) where the action plays out on several fronts as both war torn souls try to recover and get their lives back to what, for them, might look normal.
Mhari Sandoval’s Sarah is full of piss and vinegar, anger and aggression even as she limps around with one crutch holding up a side while another foot is in a walking cast, her arm in a sling and her face and body scarred from the wounds she took from a roadside bomb. (Credit make-up designer Peter Herman) She wants no help from Jamie and is bound and determined to get herself healed for…? In the meantime Jamie is committed to giving her all the TLC he can muster.
For his part, Jamie’s wounds are internal. He is guilt ridden from all the horrors of war he saw and the fact that he was not with Sarah when she took the hit. He is now ready to stop chasing the story and settle down with Sarah. He even goes so far as proposing marriage and having a family. Gercke is the perfect partner for Sarah giving us a fine performance as the cool, calm and collected lover he thinks she needs.
Wooing her into thinking that they could make it together he shifts his interests from war time journalism to horror story writing hoping she too will forget the hunt and adrenalin rush of the war time experience. They invite their mutual friend, Richard (John Nutten) and one time sex partner of Sarah’s to the flat so he can see for himself how Sarah is doing and to check into the progress being made on a story Jamie submitted to the magazine.
Richard shows up with a young, idealistic and energetic party planner named Mandy (A wonderful Stacey Hardke) and the entire dynamic of the evening changes. Mandy is convinced and tries to convince the others that there is more beauty to celebrate in the world right here at home rather than to run off to cover the horrors of war where one is simply an observer not an participant. Needless to say, Sarah is not on board with that. The setup and energy between the four (great ensemble work) is one that Margulies is known for and that Ellenstein has of bringing it home to fruition.
John Nutten is great as the adult in the room in the face of adversity especially when he brings twenty something Mandy into the conversation with his forty something friends and colleagues. He’s happy and settled and too bad if the others don’t like it. Stacy Hardke’s Mandy turns into a real mensch as we watch her transform into a fully developed character with a brain and feelings over the course of time.
Both Gercke and Sandoval are at the top of their game with Sandoval digging deeper into her psyche as she moves into a position that will not please anyone in her apartment especially Jamie. Gercke is a fidget digit but in a good way as he hovers over Sarah giving her the room he thinks she needs.
Ever so the soldier he is a stalwart in his disappointment as she chooses the excitement of the shoot in Kabul or Kandahar over some home grown domesticity. One thing for sure, Gercke doesn’t disappoint as Jamie. He is astonishingly sensitive and comes across more than credible.
With Chris Luessmann’s sound design, Marty Burnett’s set design, Matthew Novotny’s lighting, Annie Bornhurst’s props, Sonia Elizabeth Lerner’s costumes, David Ellenstein’s direction and a great acting ensemble Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” couldn’t be in better hands.
War is hell and for those in it in any way, form, shape or fashion the residual affects are gruesome. Just tune in to this story and find out for yourselves. Or…look for any number of the homeless survivors of Vietnam sleeping in a doorway along any downtown doorway in our fair city.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 17th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive- Suite D 92075, Solana Beach
Ticket Prices: start at $37.00