Play tackles nature of journalism

By Jeanne Li
New York, N.Y.

“There is so much beauty in the world, but you just see misery. Both of you!” – Mandy
“People need to know. Hundreds and thousands of lives are at stake!” – James

This tension over journalistic purpose was at the center of the Princeton Summer Theater’s fourth and final play of its 45th season, “Time Stands Still,” which played from Aug. 1-4, and Aug. 8-11. 

During the course of the play, Sarah, a photojournalist, and her boyfriend James, a reporter, served as foreign correspondents during the war in Iraq. While there, Sarah was badly scarred by a roadside bomb that forced her to return home.

Not long after Sarah gets back to the New York apartment where the play is set, she and James meet Mandy, the young, new girlfriend of Sarah’s editor Richard. Mandy, a naïve event planner, enjoys detailing the beautiful things in life, while all Sarah seems to talk about are “wars, famines, genocide,” because she’s “too busy saving the world.”

Still, Mandy respects Sarah’s work until she sees a photo she took of a mother holding her dying baby. “How could you just stand there?” Mandy asks, sobbing. “The camera’s there to record life, not change it,” responds Sarah. And the media’s job is “to capture the truth, not stage it.”

The night after James and Sarah’s wedding, a separate but related tension is brewing between the other two central characters. James loses it after learning that Richard killed an article he’d written for his magazine. Mandy defends her husband’s decision, arguing that there’s more to journalism than publishing his depressing dispatches from the Middle East.

During an interview after the play, Brad Wilson, the actor who portrays James, remarks that the real question for him was, “How could you be that person” to take pictures rather than save people? “That’s the crux of the ethical dilemma,” Wilson said.

Evan Thompson, who plays Richard, took a different position. He said that by becoming a journalist, one has already decided not to become part of the story. Otherwise, one has chosen the wrong profession.

Sarah Paton, who portrays Mandy, recalled that before starting rehearsals, director Emma Watt asked the actors to close their eyes and visualize “happiness.” Paton said she believes Mandy’s idea of happiness is starting a family with Richard and then “growing old” with him. James, too, by the end of the play, seemed to move closer to Mandy’s position. “I wanna take our kids to Disney World and buy all the crap they want!” he tells Sarah at one point. He wanted a life that was “simple, boring, happy.”

As for the journalist who does want to change the world, actress Maeve Brady pictured Sarah’s definition of happiness as the moment she boards the plane with her camera to start a new assignment. Brady said that her character was so committed to the job that she was willing to give up anything, even if it meant sacrificing her relationship with James.

Watt captures the bittersweet nature of a successful career in journalism: the tension between work and family, as well as the degree of involvement a reporter should take with their subjects. “I don’t need to dodge bombs to feel alive anymore,” James says toward the end of the play. Whether Sarah feels the same way is another story.

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