There are some 50 wars or armed conflicts happening somewhere in the world right now, at least a dozen of which each caused thousands or tens of thousands of deaths in 2015 alone. Watching reports of these wars on the news, Susanne Sulby was appalled, moving her to create “Sanctuary,” an earnest, well-meaning but disappointing solo show in which she portrays three women affected by war.
One is a suburban housewife, a seeming stand-in for Sulby, who feels impelled to try to do something, anything, about the carnage she views nightly. The second is a television news correspondent reporting on various current war zones around the world – Afghanistan, the Sudan, etc. – and those in recent history – Rome during World War II, Germany just after the war, Vietnam in 1968. The third is a prisoner of war in a cell bizarrely fitted with a surveillance camera to enable a live video feed. There are also sundry quickly-sketched characters who make brief guest appearances, including an angel.
The subject of “Sanctuary” is urgent, and its underlying question compelling – what can an individual do in the face of war and violence? The production is professionally acted, directed and designed, especially effective in its use of projections put together by Olivia Sebesky,focusing on actual news footage. But “Sanctuary” does not deliver on what its marketing has promised – a look at the effect of war on women through the ages – and it doesn’t work well as a play.
The language veers from cliché (The housewife: “It’s like watching a car wreck”) to puffed up and obvious news-speak (The reporter: “We can see that the most tragic victims of the conflict are the Afghan children…They have lost limbs, they are impaired, yet struggle under these extraordinary circumstances to remain children.”) to the pseudo poetic (The political prisoner: “Sometimes I imagine I can reach up and touch my mother’s fingertips and my mother’s mother’s fingertips…But instead I am here with you, a camera.”) Moments of potential – the recitation of actual poems, including one by a soldier who was killed at the end of World War I; an exchange of letters between the housewife and a G.I. to whom she’s sent a care package – don’t pan out to anything memorable. (The most interesting tidbit is that Julia Ward Howe tried to create an annual “Mother’s Day for Peace” in 1870, in reaction to the carnage of the Civil War.) Sulby’s performance makes some of “Sanctuary” come off as better than it deserves, but there’s no disguising the lack of insight, depth, or focus in the script.
Sanctuary will be on stage at the Lion Theatre of Theatre Row through January 23, 2016.