Playing the Easy Role Gets Tough

Recent University alum Valeri Mudek helps bring a different perspective in the Guthrie’s production of “Time Stands Still.”

Samuel Linder

“Time Stands Still” was written by a man who teaches at Yale in his free time — when he’s not winning the Pulitzer Prize. Understandably, the main characters are hyper intelligent to the point of snobbery, and based on the audience’s response to jokes, there were more than a few mental heavyweights in the crowd as well.

Just when the weight of the play seems like it might drag us all down into an existential abyss, however, a character named Mandy frolics in to lighten the load and prick a few ever-swelling mental balloons. Mandy’s real-life counterpart, Valeri Mudek, did not go to Yale. She went to the University of Minnesota.

Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” tells the story of a photographer (Sarah Goodwin, played by Sarah Agnew), and her reporter boyfriend (James Dodd as portrayed by Bill McGallum), as they deal with her recovery from a roadside bomb blast during the Second Gulf War. Both characters are smart and driven to a fault — traits that create conflict as they both stay at home to deal with the healing process. The string of impossibly witty quips is broken, however, when Sarah’s editor shows up with his hot young girlfriend, Mandy.

“The great part about playing Mandy was that I did not have to ‘dumb myself down.’ I just tapped into a different kind of intelligence — an emotional intelligence.” Mudek said.

That distinction is important, because Mandy is set up originally as a comic foil to the Ivy League couple and their cosmopolitan editor and friend. As James quips about his days at Stanford and Sarah discusses the worldwide importance of her pictures, Mandy tells everyone how she prayed for Sarah “even though I don’t really believe in God, or anything like that.” Richard, the editor (played by Mark Benninghofen) looks aghast as his new beau embarrasses herself again and again, erupting in her defense without provocation when Mandy finally heads to the bathroom.

The audience laughs along with Sarah and James at Mandy’s unaware string of faux pas for a while, but then she does something incredible: She makes us all think. Every one of us, including the couple on stage.

Looking through Sarah’s wartime pictures, Mandy wonders why the photographers don’t do anything to help the people dying six feet from their lens. Sarah’s response is quick and knife-sharp, as always, but you don’t believe her as swiftly as you did before. Mandy has changed something in the air, brought a little humanity into the world of bantering sitcom couples. Mandy has pulled everyone down to earth.

“I loved the role because I could sink into it so deeply. Like, at one point I was looking at the pictures on stage and realized my hand was in my mouth. I was like, ‘How did that get there? Did I put that there?’”*** Mudek said.

The fact that Mudek could forget she was on stage for a second and act so naturally is a testament to both Margulies’ writing and Mudek’s perfect fit in the role. She was as enthusiastic and unassuming off stage as on, though not quite as simple as Mandy — it takes a pretty quick brain to graduate with a B.F.A. from the University. She even throws a Mandy-like wrench into the bike spokes of her new hometown hothead—though she has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., since graduation she does not show any condescension toward the Twin Cities, instead calling our neighborhoods “kindred spirits.” Bite that, Big Apple!

When asked where she fell on the show’s big question, however — should an artist merely record the truth, or can they step in to change the story — Mudek answered in a way that might make Mandy sad.

“I think that artists are here to live and record truth as best they can.”

Margulies’ play feels a little untruthful sometimes, a little heightened and whip-sharp to be the real world. Thanks to Mandy Bloom and the cast’s excellence, however, the little lies can be forgiven for the sake of a larger purpose.