AstonRep's "Time Stands Still"

Breaking Cover Stories: A Reflection on “Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies

Are you the hero of your own story? Of course you are! Most of us cast ourselves in a starring role in our life’s drama. We see ourselves as valiantly overcoming impossible odds or humbly benefiting from benefactors or privilege, which of course we deserved! Failures and roadblocks are easily explained: “I was the victim of villains, bad luck, innocent mistakes or unforeseeable accidents”. Who among us would authorize a biography that cast us as a villain? That certainly wouldn’t look good on Facebook.

Cover Stories

We are our own best spin doctors! This is natural and nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something to become aware of. Why? Because we can become so addicted to preserving the image of ourselves as good that we will fudge our stories to accommodate any and all contradictory evidence. We may never realize that we are clinging to a fake goodness, one that is functioning as a cover story for wrong or harmful patterns of behavior that we should be working to change. The uncomfortable truth is that we all excel at revising our cover stories without changing them at all. Time stands still.

Which brings us to the play Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies, movingly brought to life by AstonRep Theatre Company for Chicago audiences. The drama centers on James (Robert Tobin) and Sarah (Sara Pavlak-McGuire), a foreign correspondent and a photojournalist. They are colleagues and lovers who have made it their life’s work to tell us the story of violence in order to convince us to take action to end the horror. They want to convince us to revise our stories. “How can you cling to the plotline of your own goodness,” they demand to know, “when you are standing idly by as the innocent suffer and die?” They insist that if we consume story after story from war zones, but our own story remains unchanged, then time has come to a standstill for us.

This play also asks whether time has come to a standstill for James and Sarah. Margulies boldly frames the question in a succinct bit of pique from James. He laments the effect of a well-meaning play he has seen that dramatized violence perpetrated against women in Afghanistan.

These people [in the audience] don’t need to be informed… The ones who should be seeing it, the mujahideen and the Taliban, let’s face it, don’t get to the theater much. So it’s that favorite lefty pastime: preaching to the choir! They sit there weeping at the injustice, and stand at the end shouting: “Bravo!” congratulating themselves for enduring such a grueling experience, and go home feeling like they’ve actually done something, when in fact all they’ve done is assuaged their liberal guilt!

James questions whether all his reporting is doing any good if the ones who need to be changed are never going to see it. And if the ones who do see it only use it as a foil to reinforce their own self-serving narratives, what is the point? These docudramas invite us to identify with the victims’ suffering. But a side-effect is that we dehumanize the perpetrators, turning them into monsters, true horror movie zombies who are nothing like ourselves. We pity the victims and distance ourselves from the perpetrators, but is this what authentic goodness looks like? Or is it just a great cover story that leaves us and the violence spinning in place, unchanged?

Trauma Stops Time

War correspondents risk physical and emotional trauma, a risk they heroically share with the victims in their stories. Both Sarah and James have suffered psychological trauma in Iraq, but Sarah has also been injured in a road side bombing. The play opens as she is returning home after months recuperating in a German hospital, not fully recovered in body or spirit. Will Sarah and James return to war zones or will they decide they’ve had enough? And what if they decide they want different things? And how will their decisions change, or not change, their cover stories?

As Sarah and James wrestle with these questions, we learn a bit about Sarah’s childhood, just enough to understand that her upbringing was traumatic in its own right. When questioned about how she can endure life in a war zone she responds, “Not as hard as you might think. War was my parents’ house all over again; only on a different scale.” Is she addicted to telling the story of other people’s suffering in order to avoid facing her own? Perhaps it’s not avoidance, as much as searching for a way to navigate the trauma of her past. In her penetrating book on trauma and healing, Intimate Domain, Martha J. Reineke makes this observation:

… in studying dreams of traumatic events, Freud discovered that the fright we experience is not so much associated with the violence we have endured as with its aftermath; we are frightened because we have survived an event without knowing how, for trauma has blocked access to the event through memory… in the wake of an accident, what one finds traumatic is not one’s brush with death but one’s brush with life: one has gotten away and does not know why.

Trying to construct a narrative that explains one’s survival requires remembering the horror of the violence and memory is the very thing that is blocked by the trauma. Sarah does not know why she survived; she says it was “dumb luck” that she escaped with injuries but her colleague Tariq, was killed. When someone says “that must have been horrible” she responds, “Actually, I don’t remember. All I know is, there he was… next to me… And I never saw him again.”

“I don’t remember.” Time is frozen. There’s a before and an after, but no memory of the moment when everything changed forever. And what happens to Sarah’s heroic life story when she survives and Tariq does not, a man she admired for his humanity in the face of suffering? Sarah knows it was not goodness that saved her or condemned Tariq. Something else, something she can’t remember or understand that could give meaning to what happened remains out of reach. She is frozen in time, without memory or even a feeble cover story to tell herself about herself. Will she cling to her old cover story or let it crumble? It is at that moment, when our cover stories fail us, that the possibility for authentic goodness begins.


This Jeff Recommended production runs Thursday – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3:30 p.m until June 11 at the The Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Ave., Chicago, IL 60660. Purchase your tickets. Show run time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Suzanne Ross will be leading a post-show discussion following the 3:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, June 11. Join her and members of the cast in exploring the cover stories we share.

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