By Retta Blaney
With a baby on her hip and a toddler scurrying around, Susanne Sulby was mixing brownie batter when the television brought 9/11 into her suburban Pennsylvania kitchen. Like many people, she wanted to do something, but as a stay-at-home mom, she felt limited.
She started doing what she could, though: small acts such as donating clothes to charities, sending packages overseas to soldiers, and working on food drives. Then it dawned on her that as an actress and dialect coach she could use her gifts and experience to work on something larger.
That was the seed that spurred her to write Sanctuary, her one-woman play about the effect of war on women that runs through Jan 23 at Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row. Sulby takes on all the characters, including housewives, a TV war correspondent modeled after Christiane Amanpour, and a prisoner of war in Kosovo.
“I recognized that one person’s voice can make a difference either way,” she said.
Wearing black stretch pants, a black T-shirt, and running shoes, with her long brown hair pulled into a ponytail and glasses perched atop her head, Sulby, 52, sat on a metal folding chair in a bare rehearsal studio and discussed her journey to this theatre.
Sanctuary first took form a decade ago and drew praise when Sulby performed it in workshops and at festivals. Two years ago she felt called to redraft it and get it back into the world. That redrafting has continued as she incorporated references to ISIS and the terrorist attacks in Paris.
“There’s so much going on in the world we needed to add,” she said.
The 80-minute play spans many conflicts — the two world wars, Vietnam, those in the Middle East — and are reported on by the same TV correspondent, Donya Namdar, an anachronistic element that helps highlight the repetitiveness of war and violence. Projections of news footage and period scenes aid the transition. The housewives who watch are nameless, reflecting their archetypal nature.
“We’ve got to stop it before it begins,” Sulby says. “The rhetoric going on in our country now is almost the same. It’s the luck of the draw that I was born here, where I can have high-quality problems. My hope is that people will come to see the play and be inspired themselves. What it’s about is individual evolution that ends up being social evolution. We need to not just give money but to say collectively that we’ve got to find a way to stop this. A tiny shift in thinking can make a massive difference.”
Sulby chose the title for its literal and figurative meanings. Sanctuaries are found in houses of worship and in ourselves: “Sanctuary to me means peace inside yourself.”
Besides the news footage, Sulby has incorporated work from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, poems from World War I, excerpts from soldiers’ journals and email responses from soldiers in Iraq to whom she sent packages.
“It’s exactly what’s happening now,” she says. “We pretend this is some new thing, but it’s been since the beginning of time. We need to become a vocal majority in the world instead of a silent majority.”
This idea is highlighted by commentary throughout the play the by Valkyries, female figures from Norse mythology who chose who would live and die in battle. As one says, “And the ritual would continue until that decision-maker would want to stop. Until he could stop because the reason for killing didn’t matter anymore, he would have to stop because he was spent. Then he would know that it’s one thing to give the order to go to battle and it is another thing entirely to kill someone.”
Sulby mentions Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature as having a strong influence in her thinking. Pinker makes the case that humanity is actually at its most peaceful time in world history.
“The truth is we are actually evolving,” she says. “If we can catch onto that optimism we will be fuel for the nation.”
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.