Steppenwolf’s Chicago Premiere of ‘Sanctuary City’ is Exquisite Poetry of the Soul

by Rikki Lee Travolta

Steppenwolf Theatre has long been regarded as one of the nation’s premier theatrical institutions. The company’s current production of Sanctuary City shows exactly why.

Playwright Martyna Majok has won the crème de la crème of writing awards, including the Pulitzer Prize – the ultimate form of distinction. Sanctuary City is one more shining example of the scribe’s brilliance, depth, and beauty of the soul. Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is exquisite urban poetry at its finest.

Sanctuary City is currently playing at Steppenwolf Theatre through November 18th in the in-the-round Ensemble Theatre. To put it simply, Sanctuary City is an emotional symphony of the human condition, the power of love, and the resilience of spirit.

The play tells the story of two undocumented teenagers, G (Jocelyn Zamudio) and B (Grant Kennedy Lewis), who bounce between fear and hope in post-9/11 New Jersey. Their relationship is tested by immigration policies, the uncertainty of love in its many forms, and the weight of their own dreams and desires.

Majok’s writing is some of the finest to grace Chicago’s theatre scene this season. In fact, it is some of the finest writing for the stage that I have ever witnessed. The inner-city elegance of Majok’s words is breathtaking. Her words move, inspire, shock, and touch the heart. Plain and simple, Steppenwolf’s Sanctuary City is superb.

Majok’s talent with words is lyrical and poetic, yet also deeply raw and honest. She captures the complex emotions of her characters with precision and empathy. The play is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and it leaves a lasting impression on the audience.

The characters are faced with impossible situations and unenviable choices. Majok’s ability to put her creations in peril and still find ways to make the audience laugh without ever breaking the sanctity of the play’s core dramatic themes is an achievement of the highest order. Majok attains an almost impossible balance of depth and diversion.

Steph Paul is accomplished as both a director and choreographer, and her ability to wear both hats is vividly clear in her unique and mesmerizing staging of the first act of the two-act play, told without intermission. Every movement is precise. Every moment is distinct, defined, and profoundly important.

The surrealistic staging of the first act is complimented by brilliant lighting design by Reza Behjat, with sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, and costumes by Izumi Inaba. The second act is told in a more conventional way, providing an interesting and moving contrast. The scenic design by Yeaji Kim is beautiful in its minimalist approach. Steph Paul’s direction is exceptionally strong throughout.

In many ways, Sanctuary City is a story about the resilience of the human spirit. G and B have both faced many challenges in their lives, but they have never given up. They are determined to build a better life for themselves, and they never lose sight of their dreams.

The play also shows how love can help us to overcome adversity. G and B’s unique love for each other is based on a lifetime of soothing each other’s pain. It gives them the strength to persevere through difficult times. Ultimately, though, it becomes a question of truths. What words and emotions are true?

Zamudio is very good in her role as G – a young teenager struggling to survive an abusive home life, who turns to her neighbor and schoolmate for solace. The young actress deftly handles the emotional rollercoaster of the role. You can always see her thinking and her emotions are natural and never forced.

G is a complex and compelling character. She is fiercely independent and determined, but she is also vulnerable and insecure. She has been through a lot in her life, but she has never hardened her heart.

G is passionate about social justice and equality. She wants to make the world a better place for all people, regardless of their immigration status. Zamudio captures all of those elements in her powerful portrayal.

The central role, referred to only as B, is a meaty part with ample opportunity to explore emotions and motivations. B is a kind and gentle soul. He is also intelligent and ambitious with dreams of becoming a doctor, but his immigration status makes it difficult for him to look beyond the immediacy of working under the table to pay the rent.

Majok’s script gives the actor charged with interpreting the character of B a wonderful playground of layers to explore. For the Chicago premiere, the role is played by Grant Kennedy Lewis.

In Act II, we are introduced to the play’s third character – Henry, the confidant of one of the two main characters. Brandon Rivera is euphorically good. He captures the drama and the comedy that makes the script so strong and delivers a truly knockout performance.

Understudies for the three-character play are Robert T. Cunningham (B), Bernadette Santos Schwegel (G), and Jonathan Moises Olivares (Henry).

Rounding out the creative team, credit goes to Greg Geffrard (intimacy choreographer), Kate DeVore (vocal coach), Patrick Zakem (creative producer), and Elise Hausken (production manager). Casting is by JC Clementz. Michelle Medvin serves as production stage manager, with Christine D. Freeburg and Kathleen Dickinson as assistant stage managers.

From the moment guests arrive at the theatre, the front-of-house staff at Steppenwolf provides world-class service, making every patron feel welcome. They make it a wonderful night at the theatre.

Sanctuary City is a powerful and moving play about love, loss, and the pursuit of a better life. It is a play that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Sanctuary City plays through November 18 in Steppenwolf’s in-the-round Ensemble Theatre in Honor of Helen Zell, 1646 N. Halstead Street in Chicago. For ticket information visit or call the box office at (312) 335-1650.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area

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