Guthrie’s Time Stands Still poses thought-worthy question

Wars, tragic accidents, natural and man-made disasters – the world can be an awful place. Do any of us get to stand on the sidelines and record the chaos for posterity, or by our inclusion in the human family are we obligated to participate? Journalists have been wrestling with this question since photojournalists went off to cover World War One. The Guthrie Theatre brings this question to its proscenium stage in its production of Time Stands Still, which runs through May 20. I had a chance to see it earlier this week.

Sarah Goodwin is a photojournalist who returns to her home in New York after being injured while covering the war in Iraq. Career oriented, she and her long-time partner travel the globe recording the darkest examples of human existence including genocide and war. Her mission is to change the world by holding up a mirror to the evil; if people could only see the destruction and human suffering, Sarah is convinced, then perhaps they will change. This work is too important to make time allowances for marriage or children.

During her recuperation period in Brooklyn, her editor marries a perky young woman who forces Sarah to consider her life choices. Mandy Bloom, who doesn’t care much about career, gives her new husband a baby right away and devotes herself to motherhood.  Upon viewing Sarah’s work, Mandy asks how she could be so close to human tragedy and not offer to help. She cries when she sees a photo of a dying child, an image dramatically captured by Sarah and her camera. Why, Mandy demands, did Sarah not put down her camera and help? Sarah says that’s not why she was there. “I am there to record the news, not become part of it,” Sarah responds.

The contrast between the emotional Mandy and the detached Sarah could not be more striking. It is as if playwright Donald Margulies is asking the audience to choose one over the other, a dilemma which prior to the play was perhaps confined to journalism classes and newsrooms.

Margulies shows that Sarah’s work comes with a significant price tag. James Dodd, who returned to New York a couple of weeks ahead of Sarah, wants to marry her. They go through a wedding ceremony but within a short time the marriage fails and they go their separate ways. Clearly the playwright is saying something about human relationships. Can anyone who detaches sufficiently to take close-up pictures of human suffering ever connect with anyone enough to make marriage work?  Sarah couldn’t.

Margulies’ observation was striking to me, as I know as least two photojournalists who have abandoned their marriages after covering war and large-scale natural disaster. Their work became known around the world, while their own personal worlds fell apart.

So Margulies answers his own question: No one gets to stand on the sidelines of life and take pictures of human drama without becoming part of the story. Most of the time, the journalist doesn’t tell this part of the story, but that is why Margulies has written this play.

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