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Mhari Sandoval (left) and Francis Gerke are a combat photographer and war correspondent striving to find a life of normalcy in the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Time Stands Still.” Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques
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North Coast Rep’s ‘Time’ puts up the good fight

SOLANA BEACH — Time passes quickly in the emotionally taut drama, “Time Stands Still,” now onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre. 

Written by Donald Margulies and directed by David Ellenstein, “Time Stands Still” focuses on the lives of a combat photojournalist Sarah (Mhari Sandoval) and war reporter Jamie (Francis Gerke), both of whom have returned home from war injured.

As the play begins the challenges between the couple, who share a New York loft, are apparent. Sarah is agitated, dour and still mending her injuries, having been wounded by a roadside bomb while on assignment overseas. She had spent the previous months recuperating in a hospital in Germany.

Her movements are clumsy and angry, stabbing her crutch into the floor with ferocity with every step, her leg in a cast, her arm in a sling and one side of her face scarred from shrapnel, leaving her with what she calls a, “Phantom of the Opera-look.”

She’s quick to erupt at Jaime’s efforts to try and make her comfortable.

Jaime, however, is eager to just be there for her. But he harbors guilt for not being there when Sarah was injured. Jaime had left Sarah, and the war zone, having suffered a breakdown after witnessing a gruesome bombing.

“We’re here; you’re alive; that’s all that matters,” Jamie tells Sarah. But does it?

With all the horrors they’ve seen and experienced, the couple struggles to find any sense of normalcy in the comfort of their loft.

In a war zone, Sarah captures the action through her viewfinder, and all time stops, she says. For Sarah, having put her camera down, time only seems to drag on with Jaime. She begins to wonder what will happen tomorrow, the next day, and the next day after that.

A young and still hopeful woman named Mandy, played handily by Stacey Hardke, provides some comedic relief. Mandy admits her view of the world is myopic compared to the couples’. But as the play progresses, she prides herself on her ability to find beauty in the world, where the cynical Jamie and Sarah can only see misery.

She also is the new girlfriend of their colleague and Sarah’s photo editor and former lover, Richard (John Nutten). Sarah and Jamie are quick to attack the age difference between Richard and Mandy.

“There’s young and there’s embryonic,” Sarah digs.

But Richard battles back, defending the relationship as real, and it’s conveyed through Nutten’s convincing warmth and soft humor.

Richard is careful to chaperone her around the two cynics, who circle Mandy’s naïveté like sharks that smell blood in the water. He shares the pair’s sense of cynicism, though longs for that forgotten sense of fun and feeling of sun on his face that Mandy emotes. It’s a war of hope that is all but lost on the hardened journalists.

Margulies’ dialog is quick-witted and sharp throughout, though, with the honesty in each of the players’ performances, the play doesn’t become glib. Apart from the exploration of living with war, Margulies also breaches the topic of the photographer’s role in covering war.

On seeing a disturbing image from Sarah’s portfolio, Mandy becomes upset and asks Sarah why she didn’t intervene when faced with such an atrocious situation. Sarah, understanding her role as a photographer, says that, “the camera is there to record life, not change it.”

Sandoval’s adept performance demonstrates that line between the confidence and fragility of what it must be like to witness and carry around the images resulting from the horrendous outcomes of war, living like a “ghoul,” she says during a weak moment, on the “suffering of strangers.”

In the end, finding what matters and the happiness that follows seems to be what the story is about — whether it’s being a mother, starting a family, or even the need to repeatedly face the occupational hazards of being a combat photographer in the hopes of making a difference.

Because if you can’t feel the joy in life, Mandy asks, “What’s the point?”