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Susanne Sulby as a POW in Kosovo, with a live video feed, in SANCTUARY (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Susanne Sulby                                             Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

                                                by Deirdre Donovan

Sanctuary is a solo show with a conscience.  Written and performed by stage and film actress Susanne Sulby, this play unfolds, in turn, like a docudrama, news broadcast, and surreal play. Now in a brief run at Theater Row (at the Lion Theatre), Sulby draws on authentic emails from Iraq soldiers, Rumi and World War I poetry, news footage, and her own passion to change the bleak situation of women suffering in war zones today.

Sulby is in her métier here.  With her richly-modulated voice and stately physique, she alternately impersonates a Valkyrie, ordinary soldier, a P.O.W. in Kosovo, a broadcast journalist, and a suburban housewife. Sulby is truly commanding on stage.  And with Stephen Stahl at the helm, cleanly blocking the scenes, Sulby confidently traverses the boards and seamlessly transitions from one character to the next.

Okay, this is not feel-good theater.  But it is theater that is good for you.  In short, it forces you to stop and think about the real lives of people who have been impacted by war over the centuries.  It begins in a mythological age, shifts to the present day, and then zigs and zags through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, indexing World War I and II, Vietnam, and more recent wars.

Sanctuary, like all one-person plays, has certain limitations.   After all, there’s only Sulby onstage and she must insinuate herself into the skins of extremely different characters.  Fortunately, Sulby has the chops and theatricality to pull it off.  All the same, I found that it was sometimes difficult to absorb fully each character’s situation and plight in this 80-minute piece (with no intermission).  It helps if you are well-versed in literature as Sulby uses the mythological Valkyrie as a framing device for the play and references ancient poets like Aristophanes and Sappho.  In short, this play is caviar to the general, with no popcorn served from the opening to the final scene.  So one must be fully prepared to step up to the serious demands of the text.

Photo by Olivia Sebesky

Sulby, of course, gets the palm for acting.  But the creative team greatly contribute to the overall impact of the piece. Costume designer Heather Stanley knows how to create a wardrobe out of ordinary clothes and simple scarves.  Lighting designer Ryan O’Gara has the lighting in synch with the mood of each scene and effectively spotlights Sulby in her heart-rending tableaus. Olivia Sebesky has designed all the projections, which bring the harsh realities of war center stage. Sound designer Howard Fredrics credibly simulates the sound and the fury of war.  And though Peter Tupitza has the unenviable task of creating a chic domestic set to contrast with the horrific TV news footage and photos, he delivers with no apologies. 

There’s no question that Sulby penned this play to point up the inhumane politics and empty war rhetoric that has been circulating in our world since the Flood.  And Sulby doesn’t neglect to incorporate news reels that show how war takes a terrible toll on women.  As her suburban housewife bluntly puts it to the audience early on in the play: “How can this still be happening in the world? I live my life, I shop, I drive, I work and this poor woman suffers, I don’t know what to do with that. I mean I really don’t know what to do with that.”

Sulby has done meticulous research in developing this piece, which has already been staged at the Edinburgh Festival and the Capital Fringe (Washington, DC) earlier this season.  Indeed, this show is a far cry from theater as mere entertainment.  Unlike a comedy or musical, it won’t leave you light-hearted or singing a catchy tune as you exit the theater.  But Sanctuary does force you to reflect on war at length and rethink “the old Lie”: “Dulce et Decorum est. Pro patria mor” (it is sweet and right to die for your country.)

Through January 23rd.

At Theater Row (at the Lion Theatre), 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan.

For tickets, and more information, visit: or call (212) 239-6200.

Running time:  80 minutes with no intermission