To some, journalism is a calling. And Sarah Goodwin is among that “some.”
Sarah is the lead character of Donald Margulies’ intricate play, “Time Stands Still,” now at the Bristol Riverside Theater. A famous photojournalist and a recognized star of the weekly magazine in which her work appears, Sarah views her job as not only exposing the world but as being a means to changing it.
She believes showing the ravages of war, the effect of abject poverty, the ways people cope with disruption, and even a day care center for inmates’ children at a women’s prison inform readers enough to make them act against such atrocity or to support unusually sensible institutional programming.
Sarah is more committed than two other journalists Margulies depicts. She regards her work as a mission while James, a reporter and her partner for eight years, is ready to trade adventure and danger for the comforts of home and essays on movie history, and Richard, Sarah’s editor, is practical enough to know the magazine is a business, and he is lucky to have influence over one department of it.
One difference is Sarah, who never lets peril, sentiment, or protest get between a good picture and her lens, was almost killed during a car bombing she was shooting in Afghanistan. When we meet her, she has huffed, puffed, and hobbled her way to a loft in a New York walkup, her and James’ home, her left leg confined in a cast, her left arm supported by a sling, and her face a map of scars. You know before she speaks her survival was a miracle, and the tough climb to her apartment is among the more pleasant of her recent ordeals.
James is also a casualty of war, more psychological than physical. Even before Sarah was injured, he had left war zones for the safety of Manhattan for both personal reasons and professional exhaustion.
Ideas of all sorts, from the adrenaline of covering a war to the banalities of domestic bliss, swirl through Margulies’ thought-provoking script. The main story is Sarah’s recovery and her determination to go back into action as soon as Richard will give her an assignment of consequence.
At Bristol, Sarah has to be the main interest and focus because the deep and genuine nature of Eleanor Handley’s performance towers over anything Margulies or Handley’s castmates can do.
Handley embodies this play. Her Sarah has a maturity, steadfastness, and drive that immediately convey how seriously she takes anything involving her — work above all — and how little taste she has for the frivolities, triteness, or simplicity of routine life.
Handley’s Sarah is for the trenches. She can no more take warm and fuzzy assignments like showing convicts nursing their babies than she can walk her own child, and perhaps a dog, around Manhattan blocks. If there is mayhem in the world, Sarah wants to photograph it and send it back in pouches for Richard to distribute while she goes hunting and gathering more barbarism.
The tone and resoluteness Handley gives Sarah, and the contrast between it and other attitudes characters express, informs Susan D. Atkinson’s production for Bristol and gives it the gravitas that sets up the headier topics Margulies addresses in his play, e.g. why half the world is in constant uproar and why the chaos has to be reported.
Please do not get the impression that Handley bulldozes past her castmates or dominates to the point of making Atkinson’s production lopsided in Sarah’s favor.
Each actor on Atkinson’s stage makes his or her mark, but Handley’s unswerving honesty and credibility as Sarah provides the intensity that makes the Bristol production a study in dedication and personal resolve.
Handley’s Sarah can be light when the moment calls for it. She can make jokes, including the sardonic one-liners journalists bat out to take some pressure off the harrowing. Sarah learns to accept the once off-putting Hallmark-y cheerfulness of Giknis’s San Diego-sunny Mandy. Yet even when giving into a perkier, more humorous side, Handley lets you see that hum of dedication that will bring her back to Kandahar, Mosul, or wherever armed conflict is.
Everything Handley does contributes to making Sarah a full, fully interesting, and fully engaging woman. Her performance is seamless and is reason alone for seeing Bristol Riverside’s rendition of “Time Stands Still.”
Laura Giknis provides a second reason. This reliable actress seems to specialize in parts in which a spirited young woman in underrated but proves her mettle with time. Her Mandy is almost an interruption, a bathetic introduction of inanity in an environment when higher, more critical things are being discussed.
Annoying though Mandy can be, Giknis makes you like her on sight. You can see there’s more to Mandy, and if not, she can be enlightened. Though conceived from an opposite point of view, Giknis’ Mandy illustrates life has two sides, and it might do one well to cultivate, or at least enjoy, both.
The men in Atkinson’s cast do not register with the same intensity. When you first see him, Michael Satow doesn’t seem like a seasoned journalist, especially one with years of experience in ugly situations. You don’t see his James as any kind of match for Handley’s Sarah. Satow does better in scenes in which James and Sarah hash out their relationship or confront what it might take for them to remain together.
Danny Vaccaro is fine as Richard, but he seems to be content to play a part rather than build a character.
Jason Simms’ set suggests a place where busy people stop to regroup before heading across the world for their jobs. The apartment seems appropriately makeshift and temporary while remaining livable. Linda B. Stockton does her usual perceptive job in costuming.
Time Stands Still, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 11. $39 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.