Sanctuary presents an 80-minute opportunity to share dismay at what often seems like the constant state of violence and war we live in. The one-woman play, written and performed by Susanne Sulby and directed by Stephen Stahl, lends a voice to the feeling of helplessness that sets in as we are inundated with bad news through the 24-hour news cycle.
What can one person do to make a difference? Sanctuary was born out of this question, which Sulby began asking herself while watching the Serbo-Croation conflict unfold on television. By volunteering, and donating money, food, and clothes to those in need, Sulby began experimenting with the difference one person could make, and in so doing, found that even the smallest kindnesses make an impact on the world.
This experiment eventually led to Sanctuary. The story line goes back and forth through time and place, and Sulby portrays a wide range of characters. The foundation character is a suburban mom, guiltily comfortable in her big house, driving her gas-guzzling SUV. She becomes captivated by a televised, real-life hostage situation, wanting to turn away but unable to. Through this mom's grief, we sense the familiar feeling of helplessness which often leads us to inertia.
Another character is a war correspondent, reporting from global conflicts both past and present. The purpose of this character is twofold. The language, the actual words—atrocity, horror, suffering—are repeated again and again, no matter which war, reliably numbing the greater world to their deeper meaning. At the same time, authentic video footage rolls in the background: soldiers crawling through Vietnamese swamps, truckloads of refugees fleeing certain slaughter in Kosovo, and the heartbreaking discovery of concentration camps at the end of World War II, suggesting that we’re as accustomed to watching war as we are to weeknight television.
The one-person show format of Sanctuary occasionally feels cliché and outdated, but Sulby makes up for it with her powerful performance. Each character she transforms into has their own unique accent, and she briefly loses herself into each personality, her energy never waning, her emotions never holding back.
The authentic source materials lend poignancy to the narrative, the most memorable being a letter from a Japanese mother, pleading with the world for peace after losing her daughter to the “atomic bomb disease.” Through the images of war and violence, Sanctuary's message is ultimately one of peace. Sulby believes that, whether we write a play, say a kind word, or simply remain aware, one person can make a difference in the world.