Love, War, and What Happens When the Two Collide

Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies’s 2009 drama opening this Friday, April 13, at Guthrie Theater, isn’t a political play—but it is about war. It isn’t flowery and beautiful—but it is about love. It’s honest and straightforward, funny and sad. Basically, it’s a story about life.

James (Bill McCallum) and Sarah (Sarah Agnew) are journalists and longtime lovers, both plagued with nightmares from their time covering the war in Iraq. Richard (Mark Benninghofen) and Mandy (Valeri Mudek) are a new couple facing the challenge of a 30-year age gap. When Sarah returns to New York after a close encounter with death in Iraq, James is ready to swap danger for domesticity. But Sarah isn’t so sure she’s ready (or able) to leave that life behind. And so the story begins.

I talked with Guthrie vet Bill McCallum about the story behind the story, the power of theater, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the show.

This is a play about war during a time of war, but it’s not a political play. What does that look like?

Marguiles’s writing is very economical and the dialogue isn’t super eventful. But the subtext to this story—which is mainly a love story—is beautifully and carefully laid out. The social and political context (the Iraq war) is present, but you don’t talk about it. For example, my character (James) has had an extremely intense experience that forced him to leave Iraq. He’s probably suffering from PTSD, but that’s never said. There are illusions to dreams, to the meds he’s taking to sleep, but it’s all party of the rich texture Margulies builds around the main story.

What’s it like working on a play that’s so relevant to the time?

It’s really fascinating and wonderful to be doing something that you turn on the news and it reminds you of something that you’re working on. There’s no political agenda, though. This is a relationship play, a love story, but the backdrop is really contemporary.

Tell me a little bit about this love story.

T. Charles Erickson

James and Sarah have been together for a long time and they’re struggling. They’re living in an apartment in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and they’re damaged from the war; their relationship is a casualty of it. The play is about how relationships are forced to change when something dramatic and unexpected happens.

How did you prepare for your role?

We talked to veterans, and, through their stories, learned how war is a really awful, scary, horrible thing. Here in America, we haven’t really been allowed to see what’s happened over there, we haven’t experienced it. To play people whose mission and desire is to get those stories told is great.

There’s a scene in which James gets upset by a play that, in his mind, portrays war in the wrong way. What’s your take on politically charged theater? 

I do see the point of political theater. But James’s point, which I kind of agree with, is that you should be as authentic as you possibly can when portraying war. The production he saw turned these dramatic, horrible stories into this beautifully lit, fake thing that the audience thinks is an authentic interpretation. That’s what makes him angry.

Where does Richard and Mandy’s relationship come into play in all this?

James, Sarah, and Richard are all good friends, and have been for a long time. The newcomer is Mandy. And it’s in the interaction between these hard-boiled, cynical journalists and this young, open-minded girl that the lesson lies: what can Mandy bring to this group? She’s totally open and doesn’t share any of their jaded cynicism or reporterish-ness. How they all respond to Mandy is where the fun is.

What made you excited to do this play?

Well, I’m excited any time a play comes my way—I need the money! (Laughs) But really, it’s not often that projects come along that are this exciting. We all get into theater for a certain reason; it feeds us and makes us feel whole in a way. But once you’re actually in the profession, you realize that the projects that truly fulfill you are few and far between. This is one such project. It’s a great play, great cast, great director (Joe Dowling)—it’s all there.

What would you like audiences to take away from the show?

I hope it will get people thinking about what’s important to them and how they want to live their lives. It’s fresh, contemporary, and keeps people guessing. They’ll laugh a lot, they’ll cry a lot—I think people are going to love it.

Time Stands Still
April 13-May 20
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls., 612-377-2224