“How can this still be happening in the world?” That is the big question posed in SANCTUARY, an impassioned call for peace written and performed by Susanne Sulby, now running Off-Broadway after recent appearances in the Edinburgh and Capital Fringe festivals. The compelling 70-minute semi-autobiographical solo show considers the impact of war on women, through the eyes of a suburban American housewife and mother overwhelmed by the seemingly endless coverage on TV newscasts, a professional correspondent reporting from the front lines of global hotbeds, a POW seen in live feed from war-torn Kosovo, and other female characters—Everywoman–profoundly affected by the senseless cycle of violence, death, and destruction throughout the world and across time.
Under Stephen Stahl’s fluid direction, Sulby transforms from one character to another with split-second timing and finesse during momentary blackouts between spotlighted scenes (effective lighting by Ryan O’Gara), seamlessly shifting into their personal accounts with distinctive accents, specific movements (choreography by Leland Schwantes), and identifying configurations of a single red scarf (costume design by Heather Stanley). Her captivating portrayals, delivered with sensitivity, heartfelt emotion, and psychological intensity, are performed before a backdrop of horrifying video projections (in a stellar design by Olivia Sebesky) of real footage from too many wars of the past century, all merging together into one indistinguishable, interminable, garbled conflict.
Sulby’s original script is punctuated with relevant passages from the Valkyries (the winged female figures of Old Norse mythology that choose who will live and who will die in battle, then lead the chosen to their afterlife in Valhalla); poetry by early 20th-century English pacifist Sir Herbert Read; a heartrending letter from a Japanese mother who lost her twelve-year-old daughter (Sadako Sasaki) to leukemia after the WWII bombing of Hiroshima; and actual emails from contemporary soldiers in Iraq–all of which contribute to the timeless universality of her powerful anti-war message.
Peter Tupitza’s set smartly supports the theme and the changing locales with a typical American kitchen surrounded by towering rocks, indicative of the foreign terrain that encompasses us all as citizens of the world, while disturbing sounds of battles, gunshots, and ambient noise (sound design by Howard Fredrics) contribute to the nightmarish reality of wartime. But Sulby’s momentous show is not totally disheartening; it becomes cathartic and uplifting, as she calls for the personal action of women everywhere, with suggestions of what each of us could, and should, do to stop the insanity of war and the evil that should not, and does not, define humankind. It is a message that resonates in our time and for all time.
[Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd Street, NYC] January 3-23, 2016; sanctuarytheplay.com.