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Olga Ivanovna, the implacable matriarch at the center of My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion at the Wilma Theater, embodies the entire modern history of Ukraine in her very bones. Her daughter, the playwright Sasha Denisova, informs the audience of Olga’s 1941 birth amid the onslaught of World War II. Eighty-one years later, Olga finds herself where she has always been, in the center of conflict, as Russian forces invade her beloved country, and the cycle of terror and trauma repeats itself.
But Mama Olga is not one to be cowed as Denisova’s hilarious and moving love letter to her mother’s strength makes plainly clear. Over the course of 90 rollicking minutes, Olga’s Kyiv flat—rendered as a fallout shelter/command center by designer Misha Kachman with projections by Kelly Colburn—becomes a geopolitical hotspot where you come to believe that the war could be solved expediently if everyone would simply listen to one woman’s wisdom.
The personal is political
Denisova’s play (in a world premiere continuing from its fall 2023 run at Woolly Mammoth) is translated into English by Kachman, adapted by Kellie Mecleary, and directed by Wilma co-artistic director Yury Urnov. The show walks a fine line between irreverent humor and classic sentimentality, constantly blurring the political and personal. From a stage-left microphone, Sasha (Suli Holum) acts as both playwright and narrator, interlocutor and daughter. Mama (Holly Twyford) and her husband Igor (Lindsay Smiling) flit between the realities of life in an occupied territory—the air raids, the lack of food and medicine—and an elaborate fantasy that finds Olga brokering diplomatic treaties with Presidents Biden and Macron, or defending the homeland with a state-issued gun.
The play and production succeed on both counts. Denisova presents her mother with such confidence and competence that, as an audience member, you cannot help but wonder whether she does hold some sort of under-the-radar role in Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s cabinet. Twyford aids in this conception by delivering a performance at once sensitive and hard-charging. Like a more sympathetic version of Brecht’s Mother Courage, this Mama is always in motion, but rather than acting purely on self-interest, she puts her life and freedom on the line for the greater good.
Holum is similarly affecting as a daughter who marvels at her mother’s strength from the relative safety of Poland while still finding herself exasperated by the risky choices the elder woman can’t help but make. Denisova smartly provides a dramaturgical background that suggests this persona of Olga’s is nothing new: if it wasn’t amplified by war, it would just be something else. Parent-child relationships provide the curved backbone for so much international theater, and the fractured but loving interactions between Olga and Sasha are as believable as they are sometimes exasperating.
My Mama trades heavily on discursive, experimental storytelling. Most choices work very well, like having Smiling play a variety of ancillary characters (his Biden is worth the price of admission alone) or presenting Vladimir Putin as a bumbling, buzzy mosquito. Others don’t land quite as well. Denisova’s onstage stand-in says that playwrights should always avoid introducing an alien into their work, and here, she should have followed her own advice.
Denisova began working on My Mama after receiving a series of WhatsApp messages from her mother at the start of the conflict. The situation proved easily dramatizing. But the work itself transcends mere topicality, although it never shies away from centering the everyday indignities that Ukrainians must face. It is a testament to resilience through humor and strength, and a global audience can access it: the Wilma is partnering with the League of Live Stream Theater to stream four My Mama performances worldwide from February 9 through 11.
Olga ends nearly every conversation with the same phrase: Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava! (“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”). My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion leaves no doubt that a hero lives in Kyiv.
The Wilma Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue with all-gender restrooms. There will be a relaxed performance of My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion on Wednesday, February 7, at 2pm, and an audio-described and open-captioned performance on Saturday, February 17, at 8pm.
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