The Unicorn Stands Still
April 21, 2012
by Paul Donovan
With all the unrest in the Middle East today, we rely on war journalists and photographers for much of our information. And I sometimes wonder about the actual people that have those jobs. What's the draw? How does making a living by documenting tragedy affect one's view of life, one's relationships? And is there a point where they start exploiting the world's problems, rather than helping to solve them?
The current Unicorn show, "Time Stands Still", tackles those issues in a remarkably intelligent and sensitive manner. It takes those rather large questions and narrows the focus onto a relationship between two people - who are forced to confront those very issues. This is perhaps the best show of the season.
Carla Noack plays Sarah, a war photographer that has barely survived a roadside bombing in the Middle East and who has come home to recuperate with her long-time boyfriend, James (played by David Fritts). James is a war reporter, and had returned home earlier after experiencing his own violent trauma.
Things get uncomfortable when Sarah's editor and friend, Richard (played by Mark Robbins) visits with his new, young girlfriend Mandy (Ashlee LaPine). Mandy is the existential opposite of Sarah - sheltered, cheerful, and stunningly naive. Yet Mandy hits some sensitive buttons in Sarah, and the two women begin to challenge - and like - each other.
This simple set-up lets loose a torrent of psychological and emotional upheaval; two lovers that thrive on danger and adrenaline are forced to adapt to a life that has neither. James feels guilty that he wasn't around when Sarah was injured, and Sarah has her own baggage from things she did after James went back home. Issues of guilt, purpose, love, and trauma sprout from each other organically, each reflecting the other.
The small cast has a great chemistry together. Fritts and Robbins are no strangers to the Unicorn stage, and once again they give solid, robust performances. Their charisma draws the viewer in and makes them comfortable.
There are two things, however, that vault this show to one of my favorite productions in recent memory - the script, and the performances by the two female leads.
Written by Donald Margulies, the script is one of the most mature, realistic portrayals of a relationship I've ever seen onstage - Margulies packs a lot into these four characters. The plot and character development unfold beautifully, each informing the other. Margulies knows when to make something explicit, and when to let the characters' actions explain what's going on nonverbally.
Of course, such a masterful script would be wasted on actors that didn't get it. Luckily, all four actors do get it. The performances of Noack and LaPine, however, were absolutely stunning. LaPine's portrayal of the attractive and naive Mandy gives the character a full three dimensions. By acknowledging that she is less worldly than everybody else, Mandy claims a power that the other three characters cannot defend against. LaPine understands this and brings a subtle gravitas to what could have been a stereotypical bimbo role. She is pitch perfect, from her airy voice to the way she puts her fists on her hips as a sign of aggressive discomfort.
Noack is a revelation in her portrayal of Sarah. This is one of the rare times that I could believe that the performer was actually the character. Noack gave no impression that she was acting - she was living the role. Her voice, body language, and physical presence filled in all the gaps that the script left for her, like mortar holding bricks together. It was a seamless performance.
"Time Stands Still" is a quietly riveting examination of trauma and love. It's a mature, realistic portrayal of a relationship that simultaneously survives and fails the ravages of the world. This is a rare example of the best that live theatre can offer.
"Time Stands Still" is presented through April 29 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or at (816) 531-7529. www.unicorntheatre.org.