Review: Florida Rep examines couple at war in superb 'Time Stands Still'

Greg Longenhagen and Tyler Layton in the Florida Repertory Theatre production of 'Time Stands Still.'

Nick Adams / Florida Repertory Theatre

Greg Longenhagen and Tyler Layton in the Florida Repertory Theatre production of "Time Stands Still."

Video from YouTube
Greg Longenhagen and Tyler Layton in the Florida Repertory Theatre production of 'Time Stands Still.

Nick Adams / Florida Repertory Theatre

Greg Longenhagen and Tyler Layton in the Florida Repertory Theatre production of "Time Stands Still.

William McNulty and Claire K. Guy (standing) and Tyler Layton, Greg Longenhagen (seated) and  in the Florida Repertory Theatre production of 'Time Stands Still.'

Nick Adams / Florida Repertory Theatre

William McNulty and Claire K. Guy (standing) and Tyler Layton, Greg Longenhagen (seated) and in the Florida Repertory Theatre production of "Time Stands Still."

IF YOU GO

What: Play about a couple recovering after life in a war zone

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Feb. 16

Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers

Cost: $40

Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org

Something else: Free parking across the street

On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.

Four characters revolve in unstable orbit around a rugged Brooklyn loft in Florida Rep's enthralling new production, "Time Stands Still." War correspondents Sarah and James stagger home, drop their bags and grab the Scotch. Bombs. Shrapnel. Balloons? What happened in the past six weeks?

Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies wrote this play about a photojournalist, Sarah, who is injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. James, her reporter boyfriend, had left weeks earlier after a breakdown; he feels guilty for abandoning her. Richard, an old friend and magazine editor, visits with his much younger new girlfriend, Mandy. She offers an entirely new perspective on relationships - and war.

Like other Margulies' plays ("Dinner With Friends," "Brooklyn Boy"), the show examines how relationships evolve and change. "Time Stands Still" lasers in on how the intellectual class reacts to the horrors of the world around them. Some may find the play's take on the NPR set distressing. Others might recognize a glimmer of truth in the slightly dismissive attitude toward "bummer stories" and a "turn the page" mindset.

Director Chris Clavelli attacks the show with ferocity. Staged in the new ArtStage Studio Theatre, "Time Stands Still" edges closer to fulfilling the promises of that intimate space than previous shows. Drew LaMott's set reaches out, into and beyond the audience. Margulies drops play-goers right into James and Sarah's frantic life; audience members can reach out and touch the coffee cups or finger the books on display.

The dramatic, in-your-face apartment space goes a long way toward creating the tense atmosphere. Glorious faux skylights open the space as if the Big Apple sky beckoned. A careless shift in the seats might send the recycling bin - filled with cans, bottles and a long-forgotten box of pasta - tumbling onto the floor. Audiences are as if a fly on these four walls - watching a ticking time bomb.

Clavelli introduces a fifth character into the show, the one right in the title: time. The taut drama becomes a window into how individuals move through their lives. Do they seek change, new lives, new experiences? Or do they dive back into the same stagnant pools? As the world around James and Sarah fractures, audiences are left to question whether "time stands still?"

The familiar confines of the studio space suit the play - and Clavelli's directing style. He resists the urge to press the accelerator on the dialogue and demand a steamroller pace. For once, a delicate, deliberate gait suits. The timing in the show feels so exquisite. Every pause, every scrape, every scuff seems marked to perfection. There's an anticipation to the moments and to the words that lasso the viewer into the scenes.

Time. How long does it take a crippled woman to walk to the bathroom on crutches?

Time. How long does it take to walk to the corner store for ice cream?

Time. How long does it take for an uncomfortable pause to become uncomfortable, then excruciating?

Time. Each deliberate click of Claire K. Guy's boot heels across the wooden flooring. Each hiss and burble of the coffee pot. Each thump-thump-thump of Tyler Layton's crutches.

Time. Time. Time.

New relationships. Weddings. Babies. The bottom of another bottle. The end of another movie.

What "Time Stands Still" does so well is bring audiences face-to-face with some very hard truths. The characters aren't saints. Nor are they sinners. They are real. The play wants to know: "What do you do when you read about refugees in Iraq? Child soldiers in Africa? Famine in Haiti?" Can one person - really - make a difference? What happens when you're ready to move on?

Tyler Layton creates an engaging, wounded, silent masterpiece from her battle-scarred Sarah. The character's physical frailty belies an intense drive and brutally serious motivation. Layton burrows into Sarah's hard facade, throwing up a cold, emotionally blank canvas to the world.

Layton and Clavelli allow audiences to see only tiny glimpses of Sarah's humanity. There's driving anger and even humility at being on crutches. Fury at accepting help - however small. And near-rage at the suggestion that photojournalist Sarah step from behind her lens to "help" the victims of war. Layton gives Sarah a tough beauty, especially in the final, vulnerable, last shattering scenes.

One of the play's most powerful, emotionally gutting moments comes in the second half. Layton's Sarah describes a car bombing in Mosul, an event she covered as a photojournalist.

As Layton recounts the horrifying scene - and her character's reaction - the play seems to stop. There, frozen in time, with lights dimmed, Layton and Greg Longenhagen's James huddled on a long, low, charcoal gray couch in a Williamsburg artist's loft, something majestic happens.

"This woman burst out from the smoke … her skin was raw and red and charred … her hair was singed … I could smell it. I kept on shooting. There was blood on my lens."

The entire play crystalizes into that moment. Sarah feels alive only when she's behind a camera. Literally nothing else matters. For audiences, these are the minutes you hope for every time the lights dim, every time you open another playbill. Life starts to unfold right in front of you, illustrating something you didn't know you didn't know - and making you question how you view the world.

The piece shuffles other subtle signs of life's passage through the work - marriage, relationships, birth, children, even a deflating balloon - but Sarah rejects them one and all. She and her life are like photographs - forever captured in place, trapped in the confines of the frame. Alone. For all that her lover, her friends and even the audience might want to connect, Sarah is only truly alive when she's in a war zone, taking photos. Layton plays that icy demeanor perfectly.

Greg Longenhagen returns to Florida Rep after a long break as writer James. The actor's everyman charm and easy grace on stage makes the scribe's hair-trigger sensitivity that much more relatable to audiences. His character is often forced to both move the action forward and react to Layton's outbursts; Longenhagen juggles the tasks with skill. I love that he somehow makes an everyday life of horror movies, bombs and refugees seem as wonderfully simple as ice cream, MacBooks on the kitchen table and dinner simmering on the stove.

Longenhagen's likability, and his ability to leap from pliant husband to roaring partner in response to bitter betrayals offers one of the show's insights. Or at least one of its more gnawing questions: Can those who chronicle death and destruction ever turn away? "Time Stands Still" offers two forks of that road.

William McNulty returns after last season's tense art-world two-hander "Red." He quietly underplays Richard, a meek newsmagazine photo editor romancing a much younger girl (Claire K. Guy). Scenes with the besotted pair, a February-December coupling that celebrates their newfound love with more than a few scenes of public affection, bring laughter. I love that Clavelli and McNulty resist the urge to let McNulty's Richard become paternal; his lines have just the right amount of concern for a friend and cranky sass.

Guy, in her fourth year at Florida Rep, comes near to stealing the show as bubbly event planner Mandy. The character represents growth, change and new beginnings; Mandy's last name happens to be "Bloom," a rather unsubtle hint.

Guy's sparkling personality and vivacious manner allows her to deliver the script's subtle digs in ways that cut delicately but don't sound cold or careless. Her fresh, glowing disposition radiates a guileless charm; as her character develops, I love that each sentences comes with its own "I'm smarter than you think I am" look down Guy's pert nose.

An in-the-round experience always offers a few pitfalls. No matter how careful the blocking, someone's getting an actor's back in their face. Fortunately, I had just one pivotal scene where I couldn't see anyone's face. A lot of the movement in the show - characters pacing, moving items on the set - seems a little deliberate, at least on opening weekend. I wish the scene changes took less time, but realistically, there's little way around that issue.

Kate Smith's lighting designs subtly raise and lower the mood. Her deft work offers a hint of storms or sunshine in the future. Look for the ghoulish flicker of the television or the glow of laptops. Tim Cobb's sound design contains several unexpected delights. Listen closely for the ringtone to James's cell phone!

Music for the scene changes comes from Iranian artist Ali Akbar Moradi. I loved these sounds so much I tracked down the details from Florida Rep. Vaguely unsettling, yet mystically beckoning notes clang out into the dark. Imagine plucking two random chords on a guitar, again and again and again, getting infinitely closer to each other the entire time. Behind that twangy thrum lies a more sound, like pebbles rattling in a gourd, rushes sweeping over a desert floor of baked sand or perhaps the thump of a drum, leathery hide stretched tight over precious wood. It is hypnotic. It is called the tanbur.

The sounds transport audiences to the markets of ancient Ninevah. The music might signify the discord of a part of the world that's been at war since civilization began. Or it might portend the unchanging timelessness of cultures that have lasted as long as the desert sand - always changing, always adapting.

So much of "Time Stands Still" represents the snapping together of well-oiled, professional pieces. Florida Rep's ensemble makes the task look easy here, in this raw, angry, searing play about emotion, wounds and the seconds ticking by. Watch especially for the layered, subtle characters brought to life by Layton and Longenhagen. Marvel at Guy's ability to combine sweetly simple with devastating truth. This one is worth your "time."

What about your life? Is time standing still? Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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