Kathie Isaac-Luke

"Time Stands Still," which opened Friday at Sierra Repertory Theatre, is a timely and riveting drama by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies.

Directed with insight and compassion by Scott Gilbert, this play focuses on the plight of photojournalist Sarah Goodwin, who has been severely injured by a roadside bomb while on assignment in Iraq.

As the play opens, Sarah is returning to her New York apartment to recuperate under the watchful eye of James, her long-time partner and fellow journalist.

In a stunning performance by Stasha Surdyke, Sarah is gutsy, strong willed and, despite her debilitating injuries, resists being helpless and dependent.

Sarah is often aloof and scathing in her opinions, but Surdyke subtly imparts her reflective and tender side as well.

James, in an equally strong performance by Joe Gately, relates to Sara in a very caring manner. But we soon learn that he has his own interior wounds which lie just beneath the surface of his upbeat persona. So good are these two in their roles that the audience is immediately drawn into the play.

Gradually, other strains in their relationship reveal themselves, and we can identify with these characters and the choices they must make.

No sooner have Sarah and James achieved a delicate balance than, Richard, an old friend and editor, arrives at their home with Mandy, his much younger girlfriend.

Mandy at first seems clueless and out of her element. She arrives with a bouquet of silver balloons, which seem woefully inadequate to the situation. Sarah graciously accepts these without condescension. In spite of Mandy's often inappropriate comments, the brash Sarah is mostly patient with her, a courtesy she does not often extend to the other characters.

Mandy is played to perfection by Lindsey Graham. In a wonderfully nuanced performance, Graham captures her character's naiveté and childlike candor, while managing to allow her dignity and good intentions to shine through.

As Richard, SRT company actor Ty Smith gives one of his finest performances in recent memory. He gives depth and complexity to the devoted friend, mentor and experienced editor, whose patience is often tested by the other characters.

Given the subject matter and the raw emotion it engenders, this play is remarkably and genuinely funny. Much of the humor comes from Mandy's observations and interactions with the other characters. But Mandy's character is much more than just humorous. Her pronouncements often touch on truths the other characters do not wish to confront.

It is Mandy, who, upon looking at one of Sarah's war photographs of the aftermath of a market explosion, asks why she kept photographing instead of trying to help the victims. It is apparently a question Sarah has grappled with before, and she explains that her job is to record, not to intervene.

The play's title comes from Sarah's observation that, when she is behind her camera lens, time itself is stopped.

Margulies has also given the other characters plenty of crisp and witty dialogue. He is a master of scripting conversations that have an easy rhythm that make them seem completely natural. Characters interrupt and talk over one another just as in real life, rendering their exchanges convincing and authentic.

As good as the actors are individually, their ensemble acting is outstanding. When all four actors are together, the stage crackles with energy. The relationship between Richard and Mandy provides a sharp contrast to that of James and Sarah. As Richard and Mandy draw closer, James and Sarah begin to evaluate their future together.

As Sarah slowly begins to recover, James feels freer to express his own anguish and his guilt for having left Sarah behind in war-torn Iraq. James is longing for stability and ready to accept a ordinary existence. But Sarah yearns for the excitement of covering crises around the globe, with the adrenaline rush that comes with living on the edge.

Their struggles to try to reconcile their divergent goals provide the heart of the play.

All of the elements in this production seem to have been chosen to enhance the whole. The inviting set designed by Dennis Jones is both detailed and functional. It's comfort suggests both the refuge for which James longs and the encumbrance which Sarah increasingly feels.

Bina Bieker's costumes have been carefully selected to reflect each character's personality. Sarah is rarely seen without her cargo pants and vest, as though she is ready and waiting to receive a call to duty.

James' clothing is casual and laid-back, while Richard wears crisp, business attire. And, Mandy's stylish and brightly colored clothing is in keeping with her youth and energy.

The lighting by Christopher Van Tuyl amplifies the mood of the play. Most scenes end with a flash and the clicking of a camera shutter, effectively freezing the action.

This play unfolds without ever preaching to the audience. The questions it raises are thought-provoking and morally ambiguous, and Margulies has the grace to let the audience draw its own conclusions.

Director Gilbert and the talented cast have crafted a seamless and powerful production of "Time Stands Still." It is one that audiences will no doubt be talking about long after they leave the theater.

"Time Stands Still" runs through Oct. 28 at SRT's East Sonora stage. This production is rated R for language and mature themes.

For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit www.sierrarep.org.