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Days of guns and roses: Time Stands Still 

Ethics debated in provocative new play

Dramas are those beastly creatures with protagonists and antagonists. Sides clearly drawn. So you don't often see the leading man or woman on both sides of a clearly defined issue. Yet that's exactly what happens in the meatiest scenes of Time Stands Still, now at Duke Energy Theatre in a fine Collaborative Arts Production through Dec. 3. The provocative script revolves around photographer Sarah Goodwin, who returns stateside from the Iraq war as a fractured wreckage after a roadside bomb -- and medical prudence -- rendered her comatose.

Longtime boyfriend James Dodd, a freelance writer whose mental traumas in Iraq brought him back to Brooklyn a while sooner, is now Sarah's caretaker, a little wary of her rushing through rehab and a bit overprotective. So there's already plenty of tension as Sarah sits down with her editor, Richard Erlich, to look over the treasure trove of piping hot photojournalism that came back home with her in her cameras and her laptop. But the huge row that erupts isn't between Jamey and Sarah. Rather it's Richard's fiancée, Mandy Bloom, who can't bear the thought that Sarah witnessed and recorded all these horrors and didn't intervene.

Deep into Act 2, Sarah has experienced a disturbing flashback. Now she's vehemently berating herself for her dispassionate objectivity and inaction while Jamey is staunchly defending her professionalism. Yes, when playwright Donald Margulies forces us to switch lenses — from professional, to visceral, and then to moral perspectives — the question of how to respond, as individuals and as a nation, becomes agonizingly muddled.

The personal issues that drive the action forward echo the ethical ones. Should Jamey and Sarah do the prudential thing, get married and settle down? Can they? Jamey wonders in a memorable Days of Wine and Roses analogy that likens the adrenaline rush of war zone journalism to alcohol addiction. Trial-and-error yields answers, but they're messy.

An aura of newness permeates this production, from the two-year-old script to the people on stage to the reconfiguration of the Duke Energy stage — with added luster from Trista Bremer's crisp lighting design. Robert Lutfy has directed in town before, but this is his first Collaborative outing, and Eric Tucker directed Women of Will at the Duke back in March, but this is his first stage appearance as James. Ali Bill makes a sensational Charlotte debut as Mandy, the young fiancée whose abundance of heart makes up for her shortages in erudition.

The evolution of the Duke from a conventional stadium space, shaken up by last year's Incorruptible by Collaborative and the recent For Love of Harlem by On Q, continues with this thrust configuration. A raised stage emphasizes the height of Elizabeth Allmon's artful set design. Goodbye, squeaky seats! Each scene in Bremer's lighting design ends with the firing of strobe lights, accompanied by sound designer Samuel Fisher's perfectly synchronized shutter sounds, as if we're in a professional portrait studio at the last instant. We certainly don't miss the photographic implications of the play's title or Margulies' clipped narrative style.

Collaborative co-founder Elise Wilkinson surpasses her award-winning work in Fiction four years a ago with a portrait of Sarah that brims with curt frankness, heroic grit, and perilous rectitude. Opposite her, Tucker is a tempting, tender tower, ground down by the horrors he has witnessed and the editorial caprices he's forced to endure, but his thundering voice when he feels cornered proves he's anything but meek. Collaborative's other co-founder, Joe Copley, rounds out the cast as the capable, sensible, conventional Richard, the sort of urbane, officious role that has fit Copley like a glove these many years.

Time Stands Still piles a bunch of questions — perhaps a couple too many questions — on our plates, without appeasing us with a bunch of pat, tidy answers. Chimes with my life; how about yours?

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