Laura Linney and Brian D'Arcy James play  journalists pulled apart by their wartime experiences in "Time Stands Still." (Joan Marcus)
Laura Linney and Brian D'Arcy James play journalists pulled apart by their wartime experiences in "Time Stands Still." (Joan Marcus)

A reporter’s war through the lens of Broadway

It takes a certain kind of person to cover a war up close and personal, day after day. One such journalist is Sarah Goodwin, the photographer in “Time Stands Still” by playwright Donald Margulies.

She embodies the physical and emotional toll that frontline reporting takes on reporters. The play, now on Broadway, touches on issues familiar to CPJ such as post-traumatic stress disorder among media workers and the indispensable role played by local fixers and stringers for international reporters. It also examines the ethics of war reporting, asking such questions as “When should a photographer put down her camera and help the victim?”

The play’s producers invited CPJ board members and guests to a performance on October 17 and hosted a reception with cast members and the author.

Margulies was never a journalist. But his portrayal of a photographer wounded in Iraq and her traumatized reporter boyfriend rang true for the many journalists in the audience. He drew on the experience of his own journalist friends as well as academic research for his characters.

“You’re a tough crowd,” Margulies said. “If you liked it, that says a lot.”

My unscientific sampling of the crowd exiting the Cort Theater certainly supported that view. They liked it, as did the professional reviewers. There was pleasure in recognition of course. Three of the four characters are journalists. And they argue and complain like reporters at any hellhole press bar or editors in any Manhattan newsroom. But this play is neither about journalism as such, nor about the Iraq war. “I’m not a political writer,” said Margulies. “I approached this primarily as a love story.”

And it’s a tragic love story. Sarah, played by Laura Linney, has narrowly survived a roadside bomb in Baghdad. She is shepherded from a German hospital to her Williamsburg loft via by her boyfriend James, Brian D’Arcy James. He was not there when the explosion peppered her with shrapnel and killed their Iraqi fixer, Tariq. James had suffered a breakdown six weeks earlier and returned to New York. When Sarah’s longtime friend and photo editor Richard, Eric Bogosian, proposes Sarah return to work, James becomes smotheringly protective. The audience winces as Sarah and James’s relationship slowly crumples under the weight of post-traumatic stress, guilt and competing ambitions. She needs front-line adrenaline. He wants domesticity.

Journalism, or more precisely, war reporting, provided the frame Margulies needed for his dissection of their relationship.

“I wanted to get beyond the typical liberal dinner party conversation about these issues,” Margulies said. For him, journalists live and “feel” what most people experience only secondhand. For a dramatist, they are “high stakes” material, he said.

Both playwright and cast were generous in their praise of CPJ’s work and the journalists it helps.

“I can’t believe the heroism of the people who continue to report what’s going on,” said actor and author Bogosian. “And the toll it takes.

“The average person is not aware that when they see a picture that is in the midst of chaos that photographer is in the midst of chaos, and is in danger.”