Review: MY MAMA AND THE FULL SCALE INVASION at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Woolly Mammoth presents a stunning tale of love, loyalty, and resilience.

By: Sep. 18, 2023
Review: MY MAMA AND THE FULL SCALE INVASION at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

 How do you tell the story of a person who has lived 1,000 lives? How do you capture a life that includes being born into Nazi occupation, raising a child, surviving a massive nuclear accident, and a full-scale invasion of a homeland…all in a tight, 90-minute package? Well, playwright Sasha Denisova attempts to do just that with her work, MY MAMA AND THE FULL SCALE INVASION, which opened this past Saturday night at DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

 At its most basic, MY MAMA AND THE FULL-SCALE INVASION tells the story of Mother (Holly Twyford), an elderly Ukranian woman who has hunkered down in her small apartment in Kiev during the recent Russian invasion of her home country. Yes, the one that’s been happening before our eyes every day for the last 18 or so months. The play is nothing if not extremely timely and relevant. Mother is living alongside her partner, Igor (Lindsay Smiling), and the pair navigate a life and a Ukraine under constant threat of attack from Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces. 

However, saying this play is about an older couple locked down in a small Ukranian apartment is like trying to summarize one’s lived experience into one sentence. You could say that, but you’ll cheat yourself of an entire world that exists outside of this one sentence. We meet Mother during the Russian invasion (and will return to this apartment throughout), but the play’s substance is the backstory of Mother’s fascinating life and what has essentially led her to this moment in time. 

The play is told from the perspective of Sasha (Suli Holum), Mother’s daughter who is now a globe-trotting playwright and our narrator for the evening. Sasha guides us on a journey through her mother’s childhood, ex-lovers, wild youth, motherhood, a complicated resentment towards her child, and an evolution into the strong woman she is today. Mother is just like so many of us. She’s complicated, fiercely independent, resilient, a good mother in her own way, smart, loyal, and so much else. 

The action begins in Mother’s Ukrainian apartment, but we’re quickly thrown into a chaotic ride through time and back again. We’re subject to Sasha’s storytelling, which splices together recent events, Sasha’s imagining of her mother in different fantastical situations, and actual episodes from her mother’s past. 

Mother is a survivor. She was born into a Ukraine under another siege - this one at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. We hear of her earliest memories, or perhaps, the memories as they’ve been filtered through Mother as they were passed down to her daughter. For instance, we learn that Mother, as a young woman, fell in with a film crowd and met her first husband this way. However, this man was a drinker, and the marriage was doomed. 

We also see Mother and Sasha during the latter’s teenage, and very awkward, years. It’s here we begin to see the complicated layers that define the mother-daughter relationship. Mother, a fiercely independent woman, did not always embrace motherhood and even leaves Sasha with her grandmother while she travels the world aboard a cruise ship. “[Grandma] loved me as a form of protest,” Sasha quips in a darkly comedic manner. 

As we march through Sasha’s adolescence and into adulthood, we witness the transition of the mother-daughter relationship as well. Sasha becomes an artist and a recognized playwright with productions all over Europe, Russia, and even the United States. It’s exciting to Mother, Sasha notices. Suddenly, Sasha has gone from this acne-riddled teen blocking Mother from the excitement of her own youth into someone Mother would like to live vicariously through. As Sasha points out, suddenly she is the cruise ship floating in the ocean that her mother used to long for in search of life’s most thrilling adventures. Sasha remarks they are now closer than they’ve ever been, and all it took was Sasha living on the other side of the world from her mother to make it so. 

As the play nears its conclusion, it indulges in several fantastical episodes created in the mind of Sasha. Of course, they all place her mother as the central character. Mother interacts with several world leaders, aliens, and even God before we settle back into the Ukranian apartment where we started. It’s a dizzying ride, but we certainly have a fuller picture of the play’s central character that we began the play with.

It’s truly marvelous that Denisova is able to draw such a distinct character in 90 minutes, but it does come at the expense of the other characters on stage who aren’t as clearly defined. Daughter/Sasha comes close, but everything we learn about her is alongside or heavily influenced by Mother. Mother is always there in some way even when the story is “about” Sasha. Perhaps that is exactly the point, though. After all, who among us is not heavily shaped by our parents? 

As you can probably guess, Mother is a beast of a role. It’s an overwhelming presence permeating everyone and everything. Luckily for DC audiences, this mammoth role (pun intended) is in the competent hands of the incomparable, Helen Hayes Award-winning Holly Twyford. Twyford’s masterful performance as Mother is a tour-de-force, a spitfire, and absolute electric fusion of the many stories and experiences that have made up her life. It’s hard to tell what’s more captivating: Mother’s incredible story or Twyford’s performance, which is an early contender for DC’s best this theatrical season. Perhaps the show’s strength is that the two elements fuse into one here, and it’s a dynamic combination indeed. 

Those seeking a linear and clear narrative need look elsewhere; the story is fractured, sometimes incoherent, fantastical, whimsical, funny, and deeply heartfelt. Sometimes, it is all of these things at once. Though it’s a bit chaotic, it somehow works. The structure mimics the human mind, which is often all of the above adjectives and more. Our minds make no sense and have no need for conventional structure or thought. So it makes sense then that a story that relies on the mind of a single person would take this form.

This style works particularly well during a sequence where we meet the aforementioned world leaders, including our country’s own President Joe Biden. It’s here where Lindsay Smiling shines in his role, which is simply listed as “Man” in the program. His performance is anything but simple, however. Smiling is doing much of the heavy lifting in several scenes as he plays a dizzying cast of characters on demand. His Biden is especially hilarious, but it’s his turn as God that treats us to the full breadth of his abilities as an actor. It’s a touching scene between him and Mother, and it’s a perfect ending to a dizzying ride. 

By the play’s conclusion, I was left thinking, “was this a play about the Ukranian invasion and its toll on the individuals near the frontlines or about a mother’s complex and very real relationship with her daughter?” The answer: Yes. It is just as much a story of surviving the Russian invasion as it is life; of navigating the joys and perils of being a parent; of love and the things that test that love; of deep loyalty to those that mean the most to us; of simply surviving life, a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself. This is why the storytelling works. It is messy, honest, funny, ugly, awkward, fantastical, and deeply meaningful. It is an excellent meditation on life, and an exceptional piece of theatre as well

MY MAMA AND THE FULL SCALE INVASION is a co-production with Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre and is expertly directed by Yury Urnov. It was inspired by the playwright’s online chats with her actual mother. The stunning set design is by Misha Kachman, who also provided the translations for the show. Kachman’s set design strikes a great balance between capturing the claustrophobic nature of the boxy apartment and exploring all the space outside of it to transport the audience all over the universe (quite literally at some points). The adaptation of the work was done by Kellie McCleary, who also served as the production’s Co-Dramaturg. Other creative team members included Venus Gulbranson (Lighting Designer), Kelly Colburn (Projection Designer), Sonia Fernandez (Co-Dramaturg), Ivania Stack (Costume Designer), and Michael Kiley (Sound Designer & Composer). 

MY MAMA AND THE FULL SCALE INVASION will be playing from now until October 8 at DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre. 

Run time is approximately 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo Caption: Suli Holum as Daughter (L), Holly Twyford as Mama (C), and Lindsay Smiling as Man (R) in MY MAMA AND THE FULL SCALE INVASION at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Set Design by Misha Kachman. Photo by Misha Kachman.  

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