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Playwright Donald Margulies' new play, "Time Stands Still," is about the collateral damage of war as embodied by a photojournalist returning home from Iraq. The play is making its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and Caitlin Shetterly has this story.
CAITLIN SHETTERLY: Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still" began with an image.
Mr. DONALD MARGULIES (Playwright, "Time Stands Still"): I imagined a room, a loft, and then I began to wonder who lives here, and I decided that a photographer lived in this loft. And then I speculated further, well, what kind of photographer? And I decided that it would be a photojournalist and that it would be a woman and that it would be a woman who has been injured while covering a conflict.
SHETTERLY: His character, Sarah, is a successful magazine photographer who's recovering in New York after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Sarah, played by Anna Gunn, tells her friend Mandy, played by Alicia Silverstone, that she takes pictures of war because she believes it's her duty.
(Soundbite of play, "Time Stands Still")
Ms. ALICIA SILVERSTONE (Actor): (As Mandy) They're hard to look at, some of them. Is that what you want?
Ms. ANNA GUNN (Actor): (As Sarah) What?
Ms. SILVERSTONE: (As Mandy) For them to be hard to look at.
Ms. GUNN: (As Sarah) I want you to take pause, yeah, and get outside your own head for a minute and put aside all the (censored) little dramas we all create to fill our days and see what other people's lives are like - the real dramas.
SHETTERLY: Playwright Donald Margulies says he did want to examine the real and metaphoric costs of bringing images of war home to an uninformed audience, but he says he did not specifically write an Iraq play.
Mr. MARGULIES: It suggests that there's an agenda, and there's not an agenda, but it is a play, I think, for people who are grappling with what it's like to live in the 21st century and to be a thinking feeling person in a tumultuous world where mass media is so pervasive.
SHETTERLY: The media does have a role, says Daniel Sullivan, who directs "Time Stands Still." He says it should bear witness.
Mr. DANIEL SULLIVAN (Director, "Time Stands Still"): The committed war photographer is someone who is there for us, in a way, who is standing there, taking a picture to show us what life is like beyond our small world. And in a way, the play is about our small world and how the comfort of our world keeps us very far away from these conflagrations.
SHETTERLY: In order to bring those battles home, journalists often risk their lives and that makes great drama, says playwright Donald Margulies.
Mr. MARGULIES: The way that different people deal differently with risk, you know, the very notion of risk and putting one's life on the line and the altruism that's sometimes associated with it and a kind of mania that's also associated with it, a thrill-seeking element.
SHETTERLY: That's not how Samantha Appleton regards her profession. She's photographed conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon for Time magazine and The New Yorker. She says that, for her, photographing war is less of an adrenaline rush than an addiction to history.
Ms. SAMANTHA APPLETON (Photojournalist): I love being able to be at the inauguration or meeting Hugo Chavez, or Hamid Karzai or these people. Like, that's the intensity of that and knowing that you're in this moment that is occurring that is some great punctuation in the history of the world.
SHETTERLY: But recording history can come at a cost to the people whose lives are unfolding in front of the lens. As playwright Donald Margulies imagines it, Sarah tells her boyfriend, played by David Harbour, that photographing the carnage at a bombed marketplace still haunts her.
(Soundbite of play, "Time Stands Still")
Ms. GUNN: (As Sarah) They did not want me taking pictures. They had lost children in that place. To them it was some kind of sacred place, but there I was like some kind of ghoul with a camera, shooting away. No wonder they wanted to kill me. I would've wanted to kill me, too.
Mr. DAVID HARBOUR (Actor): (As James) No, no.
Ms. GUNN: I live off the suffering of strangers. I built a career, a reputation, on the sorrows of people I don't know and will never see again.
SHETTERLY: Sarah is wracked with guilt that she did not put down her camera down and help. That's the stuff of fiction, says Samantha Appleton.
Ms. APPLETON: When you're in a moment like that, it's just common sense. It's just - you do the human thing. In my experience, I think there are only one or two exceptions that I've seen when somebody needs help, journalists' help.
SHETTERLY: But the job of the photojournalist, she says, is to get her pictures out into the world. In the play, Sarah's boyfriend, who's also a journalist, is tired of playing war. He just wants his next trip to be somewhere fun like Disneyland or Club Med, but Sarah can't reconcile the comforts of her life in New York with the atrocities she's seen. Samantha Appleton says this struggle is all too familiar.
Ms. APPLETON: Far and away, the hardest part covering conflict is coming home. It's so hard to hear people talk about their new car that has a cup holder that can heat up or cool your drink. You know, when you come back from war, and you hear somebody talk about that, I can't begin to describe how devastating that is.
SHETTERLY: That's just the kind of disconnect Donald Margulies wanted to capture.
Mr. MARGULIES: The problem of writing this play was to keep the humanity of these characters and to not present any tidy conclusions for any problem that arises.
SHETTERLY: When the play ends and audiences leave the Geffen Playhouse, Donald Margulies hopes his characters and their questions about their own capacities for empathy in a world fraught with war and destruction will remain at least for a moment.
For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Shetterly.
SIEGEL: And you can find scenes from "Time Stands Still" at our Web site, npr.org.
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