I sincerely feel rather awful sticking a rating of “2” on this work, because I in no way disagree with any of its points. War is certainly bad, and is often particularly cruel to women; the media cycle hypes conflict over peace, and war only happens because people believe in their personal, wrongheaded causes; love ought to conquer all. But such familiar and oversimple platitudes do not, in themselves, a powerful theatre piece make.
I’ll start with the good things. Writer/performer Susanne Sulby is, as her work as a voice instructor and dialect coach would suggest, charismatic and expressive onstage. Under Stephan Stahl’s snappy direction, she smoothly moves into and out of the characters of a suburban mom, a world-weary reporter, a prisoner of war, and others. A handful of the segments in this history-hopping show stand out – curiously, the ones that are most removed from any particular historical context. There’s a brief scene with a sword where Sulby readily challenges our assumptions, and a recurring segment where Sulby delivers snippets of poetry about the complexities of war in an Irish lilt. Both these parts are subtle, unique, and well-written.
Additionally, Sanctuary has got to have the best projections I’ve ever seen. Not the best projections “for a Fringe show,” which would in itself be quite a feat, but the best I’ve seen period (perhaps only excepting those in the works of local director Natsu Onada Power). Projection designer Olivia Sebesky conjures a bold, fluid succession of images ranging from gently waving grass to overlapping scenes of battle and destruction; there’s nary a hiccup or an unclear choice in sight, and the colors are stark and beautiful to look on.
Written and performed by Susanne Sulby
Director: Stephen Stahl
Details and tickets
It’s a pity such art is spent in service of such an overall disappointing show. I wanted desperately to get more insight into the plights of Sulby’s characters. I wanted to see her suburban mom really explore her own guilt, instead of merely putting it on display. I wanted to see her reporter give us some insider views into the difficulties of finding truth in the fog of war, instead of just getting upset by the horrors. And I wanted to see her prisoner, and other victims, do anything besides suffer and demonstrate how much they suffer. Despite being a play “about the impact of war on women,” there’s little that’s specific enough to women’s’ experience to justify that title. Japanese comfort women are mentioned, but that’s about it. The rest is pretty generic guilt, pain, and anger.
The power of the show diminishes rapidly as it increasingly treads thematic water. While it is certainly important for we privileged folks to look on pictures of war and be reminded of our distance from it, once that initial shock to our collective system has passed, there’s nothing more on offer. The victim characters show us their victimhood. The non-victim characters find uplifting endings where they stand up in the name of Love, Truth, and Doing Something Nice For The Soldiers To Make Yourself Feel Better, lessons which, frankly, could have been delivered just as fully and much more succinctly in the form of a pamphlet.
(In fact, Sulby’s preview essay https://dctheatrescene.com/2015/06/30/sanctuary-a-capital-fringe-peek/ does the job fine enough, although it oddly touches on a few interesting points that the show itself leaves out.)
Ultimately, it’s a lack of awareness that keeps this piece from achieving the impact it aims for. The result is a show for young folks only recently awakening to the harsh realities of the world, not informed adults in search of deeper challenges, more insightful research, and sharper views. The topic deserves better, and Sulby certainly has the heart and the acting talent required to address it. Maybe next time.