The title of Donald Margulies' provocative play "Time Stands Still," now in its first Chicago production at Steppenwolf Theatre, seems to refer to the moment when a photojournalist, confronted by a sudden meeting between one of the world's many unresolved horrors and one of its many undeserving victims, frames the instant and, with a single, well-timed shot, freezes it for good. When you see one of those pictures in the pages of a newspaper or magazine, you often wonder if the photographer had a choice between recording and intervening. Should the photographer have spent that moment mopping up the blood — or finding food for the starving kid, or respecting the dignity of a parent who just lost a child — instead of using exposed bones and raw human pain to secure the front page?
It is a good question and one that haunts journalists of all stripes, who, whether their beat is Afghanistan, the Congo or suburban doorsteps after car crashes or sex scandals, invariably find themselves facing down a moment when their impulse is to intervene, or conceal, rather than reveal. Most journalists — like the photographer played by Steppenwolf's Sally Murphy in Margulies' play, who gets blown half to bits by a roadside bomb after her lens lingers a moment too long in the wrong spot — come to see that revelation can be intervention. Or so we convince ourselves. But those who do the real dirty work of the profession in the world's really dirty spots, often remain haunted by what they see, and what they did or did not do. News, after all, is a marketable commodity once that killer photo is sent home to oft-mercurial bosses, and the most agonizing news is in the most demand.
On Broadway, the four-character, single-set "Time Stands Still" felt like a highly experienced and skillful playwright's star-friendly vehicle for a debate around those moral questions, coupled with an interrelated matter applicable beyond journalism to other warriors — doctors or military, say — on the front lines: the struggles of those who have led adrenaline-filled lives and then come home to stare down the horrors of quotidian lives. Haunted, maybe wounded in battle, often needing, abusing and confusing the very people who love them (such as the photog's writer-boyfriend, played here by Randall Newsome). Margulies is exploring whether it's possible to get addicted to the pain of others as if it were cocaine; and whether some who toil in those killing fields, not to mention the killing fields of some marriages, have merely lost their ability to foreground the beautiful. Then again, those of us who pay attention to our needs — maybe choosing an upbeat partner who makes us laugh more than think — are perhaps just sticking our heads in the sand of too many Brooklyn brunches.
Austin Pendleton's direction goes much further than the Broadway production's — he treats this play as if it were something by Anton Chekhov. And that is greatly to Margulies' advantage, and ours.
Pendleton's organic, slow-burn style of direction, which invariably emphasizes ensemble work over individuals and turns even polemical or stereotypical characters into needy souls striving for their own brand of happiness, does not match every script. But it works beautifully with "Time Stands Still," revealing a far fuller dramatic landscape than was the case on Broadway. Pendleton's work — among his best, to date, in Chicago — files down the play's contrivances, such as the way characters come and go merely to reframe the onstage debate. He extends the play's human pulse beyond its starring role and integrates its ideas with its humanity. It's hard to overstate the drastic difference in casting, especially in two of the four roles.
On Broadway, Eric Bogosian, a caustic type, played the editor (and close friend) of the photographer who shows up one day with a much-younger woman whom he plans to marry (Alicia Silverstone on Broadway; Kristina Valada-Viars at Steppenwolf). Much fun was had in New York at the familiar picture of the guy with the midlife crisis and the superficial young woman he picks, to the horror of his liberal-elite friends. It was funny, but it was familiar.
Pendleton and Steppenwolf throw all that away completely: Francis Guinan, who plays the editor, is a gentler, wiser spirit, an ordinary, older, striving-for-happiness fellow whose arguments for this relationship feel quite credible throughout. And Valada-Viars is no Malibu-style bimbo, but a fully rounded character right from the start, who just happens to be young and optimistic. The gags don't land in the same way. But not only do you believe this relationship, you see its worth because you see what both parties are getting. And thus the crucial other side of Margulies' arguments — why not pick a life where you're surrounded by beauty instead of ugliness? — is articulated in a much more credible fashion, to the great benefit of the play.
Murphy, playing a role originated by Laura Linney, does not replicate Linney's astonishing ability at re-creating a moment of terrible horror and putting it in the present tense. But this is an ideal role for Murphy, whose portrait is full, rich and both vulnerable and unsentimental. It's an unselfish performance and moving throughout. It takes you a while to see where Newsome is going, not least because he plays up his character's own issues and neuroses, and plays down his role as an oppositional force to his more successful girlfriend, a woman he needs to pin down. Rather than keep trying, Newsome and Pendleton show us a man — a very Chekhovian man, really — who is just looking for a little happiness in a cruel world for the middle-aged man, even though he suspects everything is spinning away from him. As with everyone here, you feel for him greatly, because his folly is our own.
When: Through May 13
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $20-78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org