Theater can accomplish many things, but first and foremost, it should inspire. If you are from Bucks County, and you are fortunate enough to see “Sanctuary,” currently running off-Broadway, you will be inspired, but also proud. You have neighbors who are creating transformative theater: Susanne Sulby from Yardley, and Stephen Stahl from New Hope/Lambertville.
Should you arrive at the 88-seat Lion Theatre on New York City’s Theatre Row, you may assume that you will be seeing a small show. But sweeping themes, the acting, and the professional production are writ large. What you will get will be an amazing actress in a one-woman show that truly inspires you in so many ways.
When one attends a new play, one hopes that the production will be thought- and conversation-provoking. This piece, which is an acting tour de force for playwright Sulby, provokes after-theater discussion in spades. “Sanctuary” is more of a conceptual piece than a conventional play. If you’re expecting a protagonist with a given set of circumstances, whose primary issues will resolve within two hours — well this is not that.
Front and center is the character of a housewife disturbed by war and violence in the world, and how little is done to end man-made suffering. The homemaker, in between making meals and taking kids to soccer practice, sees horrific images on the television that deeply disturb her. The question becomes, “Is there anything that that she, or the average human being for that matter, can do?”
What ensues in the next 80 minutes is Sulby morphing from housewife, to war correspondent, to warrior, to war victim in the blink of an eye. Her talents and ability to change characters with split-second timing is nothing short of amazing. She is aided by minimal props and impressive lighting and projections. This symphony of technology and storytelling is conducted by director Stephen Stahl. He has done an exceptional job of making the piece tight and, along with Sulby, of maximizing the message.
In the program notes, Sulby talks about her journey in trying to make the world a better place, after seeing news reports from Serbia and Croatia. What started as donating money and giving to food banks has evolved into this piece for peace. As an audience member, it gives pause watching her go so effortlessly from the person who subjectively lives as a war victim, to the person who is objectively reporting it, and finally to the ultimate consumer of the news.
One message at work is that the news media filters the horror of war to make it palatable to be presented in between commercials for the average household’s consumption. And that, along with a 24 hour news cycle, lets the majority of us become numb to the suffering of others due to overexposure. What gives one pause as an audience member, is the goodness of Sulby — this play is her. She is evidently the housewife who actually cares, and that is exceptional to begin with.
And the intensity of the production comes from the intense and sincere empathy that she has for the suffering in the world and that allows her to switch characters so easily. It is not just technique. Her emotions are real and raw. It is not just a tribute to talent, it is a tribute to her beliefs and her humanity. And after being deluged with the the inhumanity that war produces, we are left with her desired effect of wanting to be inspired.
The play is bracketed by scenes with a Valkyrie/angel who acts as an overseer of our fate, and while not incongruous, they may not be needed. On the whole, there were severalother moments, like the projection of the many faces of the dead, that were breathtaking.
“Sanctuary” is a master class in acting by Sulby. It is well-directed by Stephen Stahl, with assists from lighting designer Ryan O’Gara, from set designer Peter Tupitza, choreographer Leland Schwantes, and an impressive projection designer, Olivia Sebesky.
“Sanctuary” runs through Jan. 24. And do stay for the post-show talk back with Sulby — it is well worth it.
The Lion Theatre is located at 410 W. 42nd St., and tickets can be purchased online or by calling (212) 239-6200.