Donald Margulies is a phenomenal playwright. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for "Dinner With Friends," and he's penned such wonderful works as "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment," "Sight Unseen" and "Collected Stories."
Even if you didn't know his pedigree, you could tell from the current Banyan Theater production of his latest work, "Time Stands Still," how skilled an artist Margulies is. The characters and their relationships are real, dynamic and complex; the narrative unfolds gracefully, with intriguing surprises at every turn; the dialogue is rich and real.
But the production itself is an unusual misfire from Banyan.
Despite the presence of Katherine Michelle Tanner, one of the area's best actors, and the usually reliable Jim Sorensen, a fine actor and the managing director of St. Petersburg's excellent freeFall Theatre, this staging of "Time Stands Still" simply doesn't come together. The cast interacts awkwardly and seems out of sync. There's little sense of intimacy among characters who are supposed to be know each other intimately.
The story revolves around Tanner's Sarah, a photojournalist just back home from an unspecified contemporary war in which she has been badly wounded. Her long-time boyfriend James (Sorensen), a writer who had been covering that war, had been home for quite a while longer.
The production's best moments come at the beginning, when Sarah and Jim try to reconnect after their long separation. There's a palpable and beautifully realized mood of estrangement and unease between the two that comes more from the performances than the playwright's words. They're straining for normalcy but failing. We don't learn the reason for their discomfiture until much later.
But as the play progresses, Sorensen's performance remains static, studied and self-conscious. He has few real moments and doesn't seem to even try to cultivate a character beyond what Margulies has defined in the script.
Tanner's far better, despite the challenge of having an arm in a sling and a foot in a cast for much of the play. She's individually commanding, but she and Sorensen never establish an emotional connection on stage.
Tom Aposporos as a long-time friend and business associate of Sarah and James, and Chelsea Gonzalez as his young girlfriend, are both OK. Gonzalez comes across as older than her character should, but the gradual burgeoning of her character's friendship with Sarah is one of the play's most pleasing aspects.
Chris McVicker has designed an attractive and functional set (but, like all theater sets of New York apartments, it's way too big) and Ross Boehringer and Michael Pasquini did fine work with the lighting and costume designs.
But the cast, directed by Don Walker, generally seems disconnected from each other, and from Margulies' marvelous words. The script is so strong enough that on balance it makes the evening passable, but no more.
And the problems with the production are largely the kind that can work out with each show. Performances later in the run could be stronger.
Details: "Time Stands Still," runs through Aug. 25 at the Jane B. Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Aug. 16-17 and 21-24 and 2 p.m. Aug. 17-18, 24-25. Tickets are $28.50. Call 941-351-2808 or visit www.banyantheatercompany.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.