‘Time Stands Still’ focuses on changes in relationships

Although its main characters are a photojournalist and a foreign correspondent recently home from Iraq, “Time Stands Still” is not about so much about war as it is about people and the intricate nuances of relationships.

Harlequin Productions is staging Donald Margulies’s Tony-nominated play, opening this weekend.

“I’m leery of plays with political agendas,” Margulies said in a 2010 interview for Theater Communications Group, which publishes a paperback edition of the play. “My plays always start with the personal. As ‘Time Stands Still’ took shape, the backdrop of the current world of foreign correspondence provided a rich, high-stakes context for what is essentially a love story.”

As the play begins, the central couple — Sarah (Jenny Vaughn Hall), the photographer, and James (Matt Shimkus), the writer, are dealing with the changes in their lives after Sarah was badly wounded while on assignment.

One proof that no political statement is being made: The playwright invites directors to change a few words to refer to the conflicts of the moment.

What matters here is not so much world events as the equally vital details of Sarah and James’ intimate moments.

The play’s other characters — Richard (Steve Manning), a magazine editor who is a longtime friend of the couple, and Mandy (Helen Harvester), his much younger girlfriend — are also experiencing big changes in their relationship.

“He’s a brilliant playwright, capable of really finely drawn characters,” said Aaron Lamb of Seattle, director of the Olympia show. “This piece has four really intriguing characters, and there’s no right or wrong outcome. He creates four equally weighted perspectives.”

Margulies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize from Drama (for “Dinner With Friends,” also about two couples facing dramatic changes in their relationships).

New York Times critic Charles Isherwood also praised “Time’s” characters in a 2010 review of the play’s first Broadway production.

“Mr. Margulies is gifted at creating complex characters through wholly natural interaction, allowing the emotional layers, the long histories, the hidden kernels of conflict to emerge organically,” Isherwood wrote. “His dialogue ... is almost always an expression of the characters’ personalities, not a function of the author’s need to dazzle and entertain.”

Lamb said the focus on characters means that his main job as director is to collaborate with the cast of Harlequin veterans.

“The play is so well crafted that the work that needs to be done is really actor work,” he said.

He himself is as much an actor as a director. Lamb has been frequently seen on Harelequin’s stage, most recently starring in this winter’s “The 39 Steps.” This is the third production that he’s directed for Harlequin.

“The play is in the characters and in the actors,” he said. “My focus has been on helping them to shape the piece among the four of them.

“I hope it will be well received because the performances are deep and very carefully constructed and very honest.”