Kim Bretton, easily one of the best actors to be found anywhere, makes an auspicious Nashville debut as a director-that places her firmly among the upper echelons of that particular field of endeavor-with her thoughtful and intriguing mounting of Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still for Actors Bridge Ensemble.
Margulies' script serves up a sharp, witty and no-holds-barred consideration of the challenges of life in the 21st Century as he tells the story of Sarah Goodwin, a battle-weary and IED-scarred photojournalist, who returns to her New York apartment in the aftermath of an explosion that has left her face temporarily disfigured and her heart irrevocably broken. It's not for nothing that Margulies' play was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike during its New York run (and has made it a popular choice among regional theater companies-in fact, Tennessee Rep will stage Time Stands Still next season): He incisively delves into the issues that plague Sarah and her live-in boyfriend of eight-and-a-half-years, writer James Dodd, and the impact their shared experiences in war-torn Afghanistan has upon their lives.
Sarah and Jamie both are veterans of the battlefields of our times and their careers have taken them to all the world's political hotspots in their continuing efforts to record and remember the atrocities mankind inflicts upon its own. And although they consider themselves to be detached and objective in the way that great journalists tend to be, we watch their reserve and their bravado crumble before us as they unravel the truths of their lives. It becomes clear, in the process, that the somewhat romanticized specter of "the foreign correspondent" that used to inspire ambitious youngsters to pursue careers in journalism has been bloodied, if unbowed, by the vagaries of war in contemporary times.
Sarah and Jamie's story unfolds naturally, in a surprisingly unforcEd Manner that makes the story more powerful and more palatable at the same time, almost as if we are welcomed into the couple's inner circle of friends, which includes the play's other two characters Richard and Mandy. Richard is the photo editor at a large-circulation newsmagazine and, as we learn, was involved with Sarah some 20 years earlier. Mandy is his much-younger, rather vapid and vague, girlfriend (she's an event planner!) whose initial onstage moments paint her as an interloper who eventually becomes a member of this cadre of friends.
Bretton's superb direction is crisp and forthright; it's clear that she understands Margulies' sense of purpose for this play and she delivers the goods with an easy grace that makes the work all the more compelling and involving. She focuses on the interrelationships of Sarah, Jamie, Richard and Mandy with the skillful eye of an actor turned director, giving her quartet of amazingly gifted actors a chance to connect with one another with an honesty that is sometimes sweetly sentimental, at others brutally frank and harshly felt.
Vali Forrister gives an exquisitely wrought performance as Sarah, articulating her character's conflicting loyalties and twisted emotions with confidence. Forrister becomes Sarah so easily that it's difficult to know where Vali begins and Sarah leaves off, so completely absorbed do you become while watching her stunning portrayal. Her performance is staggeringly consistent, yet there are moments in which Forrister truly soars to greater heights in scenes that are quietly riveting: When Mandy enters, bearing mylar balloons to welcome Sarah home from war, the expression on Forrister's face tells all you need to know about her disdain for such foolishness; and when she begins to make love to Jamie, her eyes focus somewhere that she's not, allowing us the briefest, yet most revealing, of glimpses inside Sarah's tortured soul. Her performance is exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time, giving audiences further proof of the sheer power of Forrister's talents.