The powerful play that director Joanne Greenberg is bringing to the Phantom Theater stage this weekend, “Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies, seems made to order for the many members of the Mad River Valley community who are drawn to evocative writing (the playwright received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010), an acting ensemble that would be at home on Broadway, and a theater that feels like an embrace.
In the play, a couple, he a journalist, she a photojournalist, are used to traveling the world on assignment, but when she (Sarah) is almost killed in Iraq, they return home to the U.S. where they find themselves in a room with an old friend and his younger girlfriend who serve as a catalyst for their confusion about how they see their place in the world after a life-changing event. All four characters are swept into dialogue that ping-pongs back and forth on matters like marriage and children, the ethics involved in photographing people in stressful conditions, and how tragedy changes the way we see the world.
Greenberg, who taught theater at U-32 in Montpelier for 33 years, launched her own company, Green Room Productions, after retirement. She reads plays, she travels to New York to see plays, and in an interview, recalled after seeing “Time Stands Still” how audience members lingered outside the theater when it was over to discuss issues brought up by the characters, something she had never witnessed.
For this production, she is again collaborating with former student, Maren Langdon Spillane, who, with her husband, has a theater company, Red Dirt Theater, in Northfield. The two women first met when Maren was a student at U-32, and became friends after Maren graduated, and continued on to an acting career in New York. When she and her husband returned to Vermont, they immediately collaborated with Greenberg on a play called “Constellations” that was a big hit.
“Plays of substance remain sadly rare on Broadway,” wrote critic Charles Isherwood when reviewing ‘Time Stands Still,’ “which makes this one as brave as it is unusual.” It is essentially, according to the playwright, a love story. It was the combination of wit and pathos that drew the two women to the play.
The role of photojournalist Sarah in the play, a woman who is torn between career and marriage and family, seems made for Spillane, who excels in complex characters. In real life, with two children of her own, it has become more daunting to take additional time away from family to perform, yet she feels to give it up would be giving up something vital to her overall well-being. (Her many fans are delighted by this news.)
The actors began rehearsing immediately after the July flood that devastated their hometowns of Montpelier and Barre. Greenberg, watching Chris Hennessey that first day knew that he was torn about giving time to art when he was needed in Barre (he is superintendent of schools, and an active member of his community).
Hennessey said, “The tragedy so many of us have gone through in central Vermont this last month has left an indelible mark on all of us as performers. Above all else, these characters started to feel very real, and they deal with the challenges, tragedies, and joys that life is throwing at them in an incredibly authentic and genuine way . . . I am convinced that the events of this past month helped me make those deeper connections to the story. I hope similar connections happen for our audience.”
Greenberg is humble as she talks about how the experience of performing this particular play has been nurturing and re-vitalizing for them, and has the potential of doing the same for their community. It has, in fact, been proven that art can transcend tragedy, and provide solace to many.
They will take “Time Stands Still” to three venues over the next month: Phantom Theater in Warren, August 10-12 (see below), the Unitarian Church in Montpelier September 15-16, and the Off-Center Theater in Burlington September 22-23.
Tickets for the Phantom Theater shows are $20 and can be purchased online by going to www.phantomtheater.org. Tickets can also be purchased at the door. Shows are at 8 p.m.