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Theatre in Review: Sanctuary (Theatre Row)

Susanne Sulby. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Susanne Sulby feels bad about the state of the world -- I mean really, really bad. It apparently started when she turned on the TV, sometime in the '90s, and saw news reports about the torture of Albanians in Kosovo. Since then, she has expanded her repertoire: She's distressed about the rape of women in Darfur, the many casualties -- both military and civilian -- in Iraq, and the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by returning soldiers. She also feels pretty rotten about World War I, the rise of Fascism in Europe, the Vietnam War, and the horrors of the Holocaust. As a well-off American, she is transfixed by the parade of horrors streamed into her home, via television, each day. Like V. I. Lenin, she wonders what is to be done?

Well, I'll tell you what she's done. She's written a play. Actually, "play" is an approximate term, for Sanctuary is a loose network of monologues touching on various horrors of this and the last century, an elaborate exercise in hand-wringing about why people do so many bad things. The characters are all played by Sulby, who is also the author: A well-off housewife (seemingly a version of Sulby) is paralyzed with guilt for having a nice house, a family, and plenty of good food and wine while the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket. "I'm determined to be part of the solution, no matter how small," she says, before settling for sending care packages to US soldiers in Mesopotamia. Sanja Silohovic is, apparently, an Albanian -- the script is vague about this -- whose torments are being broadcast, for reasons that never become clear. ("I am here with you, a camera. I have become a piece of propaganda.") Donya Namdar is a Christiane Amanpour-style reporter who covers atrocities both present and past, becoming increasingly fed up with her job, and balking when asked to describe US soldiers liberating a Nazi death camp.

The list goes on: Another housewife, with a Boston accent, struggles with letting go of the son who has volunteered for the military. A Japanese woman recalls how the radiation at Hiroshima slowly poisoned her little daughter to death. Sulby even slips into a not-entirely appropriate Scottish accent to impersonate Wilfred Owen, whose bloodstained World War I poetry is quoted at length. Most weirdly, she occasionally stands against one of the craggy rock cliffs on Peter Tupitza's set, framed by a pair of projected wings, making portentous, incoherent comments like, "I am here, my love, waiting. You will all come to me. To the sanctuary of my arms. But how will you live?" Watching these scenes, I had no idea what I was looking at. Now, possessing a copy of the script, I know that she is impersonating a Valkyrie. So there.

None of these characters achieves a distinctive profile because they have nothing to do but exclaim their suffering; they exist, therefore, only as acting opportunities for Sulby, who has a hundred and one ways of looking agonized. The most insufferable portions of Sanctuary feature the well-off American housewife and her endless tussles with her conscience. We see her ticking off a bunch of ladies at a party who turn off the news because they "can't have that kind of negativity in my life," more or less telling them it's their duty to be witnesses to history. Turning to us, she adds, "Frankly, I can't think about my next facial peel when there are so many human beings suffering around the world." Warming to her topic, she says, "If these were my wars, I would send all the women flowers and buy all the children books. I would build beautiful buildings for all the men to work in. I would make banquets and pack snacks for everyone. Then, if they still hated us, they would be too busy eating, working, and living to attack us. Do I sound naïve?" Honey, you said it; I didn't.

The above speech points to Sanctuary's cardinal sin, one that I associate with the works of Eve Ensler. Sulby doesn't want to think about these terrible events; she displays no interest whatsoever in politics, religion, ethnicity, or the long march of history -- in short, everything that provides the underpinnings for today's (and yesterday's) conflicts. She doesn't want to understand the specifics of anything, preferring to throw them all into a blender, mixing them into a big soup called man's inhumanity to man. This approach is infuriating because she name-checks an authentic problem -- what is the right response of an individual in a conflict-ridden world? -- then proceeds to trivialize it with carefully arranged tears. It's telling that all of the solutions offered involve becoming your own best friend. Donya, the reporter, pulling the plug on her career, announces, "I'm going to create a sanctuary inside myself first where I tell the truth. Where I tell the truth." The housewife says, "I won't give up. On myself. Or us." And that Valkyrie pronounces, "We are on the brink, on the edge of something new. All it will take is to know that truth -- that love is mighty. It is stronger than rage or fear or greed." Tell it to them in Darfur.

Some very professional people have gone along for the ride with Sulby and they provide the polish that makes Sanctuary occasionally seem better than it is. The director, Stephen Stahl, can't really curb his author/star's excesses, but he keeps things moving at a decent clip and he has made sure that the physical production is better than solid. Tupitza's set, a kitchen interior nested between the aforementioned imposing cliffs, makes a strong impression, and it serves as a workable surface for Olivia Sebesky's elaborate and effective projection design, which includes news footage to accompany each of Donya's reports. Howard Fredrics' sound design includes gun battles, bombs, cheering sports fans, and bits of various television shows. Heather Stanley has dressed the star attractively and appropriately.

In the end, Sanctuary is distressing, but not in the way Sulby intends. Instead of awakening our hearts and consciences to what is happening in the world, she puts herself front and center, turning everything else into a backdrop. The kindest thing to be said about this piece is that it needs a complete rethink. -- David Barbour

(11 January 2016)

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