Attending “My Mama and the Full Scale Invasion” at the Wilma was very much like attending a political event. Pre-play ceremonies included a mini speech by Iryna Mazur, the Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia who thanked the city for its unwavering support of the war.

I admit I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t read anything about the play prior to going because I wanted to attend with an open mind. Yet within minutes after the opening comments I knew that “Mama” would be nationalist in the extreme. I mean “extreme” as in the pro-Ukraine message is constantly hammered into your head in the artful manner of a Leni Riefenstahl film.  

This quirky play is all over the place, and yet it always draws you into itself and keeps you keyed in. First and foremost, it is an anti-war play. In that sense, you can almost forget that it is about Ukraine. Mama could be about any war or any besieged people: The siege of Sarajevo, Constantinople, Rome, Jerusalem, or even the war crimes committed by WWII Allied bombers when they reduced the city of Dresden to rubble on February 13, 1945, killing over 100,000 civilians, mostly children, women and the elderly. 

War is inhumane and does terrible things to people, to families, to nations, and to both warring parties. 

Mama, or Olga Ivanovoa (Holly Twyford), a chain smoking 83-year old firebrand who lives in a tiny but cozy flat in the middle of the war zone, is a charming, cantankerous alpha mom who is dead set on remaining where she is until “Ukraine is free.”

Her husband, Igor (Lindsay Smiling) is one of those men who is perfectly okay with letting their wife be in command. Mama’s daughter, the playwright Sasha Denisova (Suli Holum), is a likable, thin-figured ballerina type who occasionally dances and does acrobats on stage, although she studies in Moscow but takes trips home to visit her parents.

The play is a multimedia event with screen projections (Keith Colburn) juxtaposed throughout, namely close-ups of Mama smoking or philosophizing about the war although very little is stated about its history and why Russia invaded aside from legacy media sound bites (no mention of past dubious US State Department dealings, for instance, that helped create the disastrous situation with the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the “new” Orthodox Church of Ukraine, affiliated with Patriarch Bartholomew.)

Commentary from both Mama and Igor tends to focus on the “evil” Vladimir Putin and on battle updates — reports of bombings at certain sites, or how close a bomb came to destroying Mama’s tiny shelter house (a unique stage creation that provides much entertainment to the eye, especially when it swivels in a circle when directed by stage hands).

The psychological ravages of war can easily be seen in the paranoid and exaggerated behavior of Mama, especially when daughter Sasha visits from Moscow and must use a password before being admitted to the house. When Sasha balks at the absurdity of using a password, especially when Mama can clearly see that it is her daughter, Mama is not convinced. She tells her to use the password or risk being shot and killed. 

Of course, elements of the absurd and fantasy thread this play, such as when Olga slips into a mind delusion that her strong will can change the course of events. These zany episodes have Olga putting on WWII pilot’s goggles while pretending she’s flying a plane and then dropping a bomb on Moscow’s Red Square. When the bomb goes off — theoretically destroying the Cathedral of the Dormition, the Church of the Archangel, and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, among others — the explosions we hear turn out to be the Russians bombing some buildings in Mama’s town. 

And so it goes. Bombs, worry, more cigarettes, and funny quips from Mama, more juxtaposed images from the big projection screen, more visits from Sasha (suitcase in hand), who urges Mama to leave Ukraine now though Mama steadfastly refuses while simultaneously reliving her youth  as a beautiful blonde talk-of-the-town type with a sexy boyfriend. 

And so we get a wonderful family personal history even as Mama hosts a make-believe luncheon with Joe Biden, who walks on stage in the same stilted manner in which he walks to the podium to give a speech at the White House. Biden enters walking in semi-circles as if unsure of where he is but then quickly ‘comes to’ as he is greeted by Mama, who considers him a living saint.

(An aside here might be appropriate: The audience, mostly Democrats and Biden supporters, laughed nervously at first at the Biden impersonation as if worried which way this piece of satire might go. Fortunately for the audience, it worked to their advantage.) 

Biden and Mama sit down at a little lunch table, Mama ecstatic that her hero is so close while savvy enough to ask Dr. Jill’s husband for more war materials. It’s then that the evil Putin appears, breaking into Mama’s tiny house dressed in black so that the first impression you might get is that he is disguised as a Russian Orthodox priest in a cassock — a latter day Rasputin  — but no, it’s just Putin in all black who then puts up a Popeye-Bluto cartoon fight with Biden while producing a surprise: a bomb device that will blow Mama’s house and everything in the world to smithereens. 

And Putin does pull the trigger as the stage lights up in a loud boom only, surprise-surprise: it’s just another Russian bomb hitting the town. 

Daughter Sasha, my favorite character, is a case study in unconditional love. She takes Mama’s mostly benign but annoying eccentricities with a grain of salt, even when she takes the time to visit and Mama tells her she can’t come in but to return to Moscow. 

In a flashback to Sasha’s adolescence we see Mama and Sasha sitting together when Mama notices a pimple on Sasha’s cheek. What follows is a funny discourse on teenage acne, with Mama declaring that never in her life did she have a pimple or a blemish on her skin, but here Sasha is with the patch of fungi eruptions that Mama keeps referring to as “WTF?!” 

Parts of the play flirt with imbecility, such as when an alien appears looking like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, or when Mama has a chat with “God,” who is dressed in a colored foil suit with a Zeus-like head covering.

“Why can’t you end the war now, God!” Mama demands. “Why did you create this?” 

Although I am no fan of Putin, the references to Zelensky as a kind of saint belie the reality in Ukraine.

Let’s just say that nationalism in the extreme, whether Ukrainian or Russian, tends to obfuscate art.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

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