Journalists covering a war have to get close enough to document the conflict, but otherwise need to maintain a neutral distance.
As the photographer in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still" finds out, it is difficult to emerge from such a conflict without being damaged by it.
This 2010 play was well-received on Broadway and seems just as likely to please in the bracing production at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre.
Sarah (Beth Hylton) is a tough photojournalist who thrives on covering battles, natural disasters and other international situations where one finds humanity under extreme stress. Seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, Sarah has returned to her Brooklyn, N.Y., loft apartment to recuperate.
Hylton does a great job conveying how this crusty, sarcastic woman holds onto her strong sense of personal independence even as she struggles to get around on crutches.
Although Sarah's body gradually heals, her determined personality is challenged by personal issues that seem to worsen during her enforced stay at home. Her longtime boyfriend, James (Eric M. Messner), is a magazine writer who shares her dedication to documenting examples of human suffering. They're accustomed to sharing a foreign battlefield, but spending so much time together in their tastefully spare apartment threatens to turn it into a domestic battlefield.
One source of tension is that James understandably does not want Sarah to recover and then immediately head back to some international hot spot. Another topic of debate is whether Sarah and James, who are edging into middle age, should put down their suitcases long enough to marry and raise a family.
Yet another thing that unhinges them is a visit by a mutual friend, Richard (James Whalen), a magazine photo editor who briefly was Sarah's boyfriend years ago. The tangled personal and professional connections get pretty messy.
As if that weren't enough, Richard has brought along a much younger girlfriend, Mandy (Mandy Nicole Moore), an event planner whose cheerfully superficial personality is in jolting contrast to these intellectually sharp, socially conscious journalists.
Moore nearly steals the show by getting laughs with her character's space-cadet remarks, but not becoming overly cartoonish.
That's actually one of the virtues of Margulies' play, which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. "Time Stands Still" presents what easily could remain schematically defined characters. Instead, their banter reveals how they're more complex and conflicted than they seemed on first encounter.
Margulies, who is known for such plays as "Sight Unseen," "Brooklyn Boy," "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment" and "The Loman Family Picnic," is a reliable literary craftsman. His characters breathe and grow.
They're also funny people, which proves to be a blessing in "Time Stands Still." Without selling short the dramatic implications of its domestic situation, the play has its share of jokes that would not be out of place in a TV sitcom.
Besides having a cast that smoothly makes these emotional transitions, the production benefits from director Jason Loewith's steady pacing.
All of this psychologically tense action plays out on a set design by Daniel Ettinger that incisively emphasizes that this apartment is a Bohemian comfort zone with its share of trendy decorative touches.
Sarah and James believe they are performing a valuable social service by documenting human injustice and misery, but they must face the consideration that they take photos and notes rather than directly helping people in need. And when they're directly hit by the consequences of war, they can retreat to this rather nice nest. Margulies ensures that they won't relax there.
"Time Stands Still" runs through Oct. 7 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 410-752-2208 or go to http://www.everymantheatre.org.