The lights were set. The curtains were drawn. Though they didn’t know it at the time, the cast members of the play “Mom on Skype” — all between the ages of 7 and 14 — were about to capture international attention. Amid the war in Ukraine, the children had decided to carry on with performances of their show in their hometown of Lviv, a western Ukrainian city of more than 700,000 people that had repeatedly been struck by Russian missiles in April. The show’s inaugural performance, which caught the attention of a New York Times photojournalist, was staged inside a makeshift bomb shelter.
Now, through efforts from a myriad of US-based arts organizations, eight of the nine original performers have arrived from Ukraine to present their show to audiences here. Their tour concludes this week with a show Thursday, the second of two at Center Makor in Brookline.
The play, which centers on family separation, is structured as a series of monologues based on true stories and written by Ukrainian authors and poets from a child’s perspective, with the troupe performing traditional Ukrainian folk songs between each story. The play closes with an original composition from one of the children, 12-year-old Hanna Oneshchak, singing a patriotic homage to her home country.
Though rehearsals for “Mom on Skype” began before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the war has given the show’s theme even greater resonance. The monologues all feature young protagonists who, through one means or another, have been separated from their parents, left to be raised by relatives or family friends. Some of the parents are forced to immigrate to other countries to find work and provide for their families. For others, addiction and illness have caused their absence. The parents who are able to keep in touch do so over Skype, but those calls aren’t always enough to assuage the loneliness of their children. By the end of the show, only one parent is reunited with a child.
If the play’s message is grim, it’s not an unrealistic reflection of the children’s reality.
Director Oleg Oneshchak, father of two children in the show, Hanna and her brother Oleksii, remained behind in Ukraine to serve as a soldier, leaving his wife, Mariia, at the helm of the production.
To Terry Greiss, executive director of the Brooklyn theater company Irondale Ensemble Project, the children’s production is “not only a balm for their community, but it’s a way of getting their voices heard during this time of great crisis. It’s a way for them to feel involved in the war effort.” The children hope that ticket sales will go toward the purchase of a fighter jet, Greiss said.
Greiss heard about the group after an Irondale colleague showed him the New York Times article and reached out to Oleg Oneshchak over Facebook. “He wrote back right away,” Greiss said.
Trying to figure out the logistics of leaving Ukraine while it is under attack posed another obstacle. Because there were no flights out of Ukraine, the eight performers and a handful of parent chaperones boarded a train to Poland, where they applied for visas to enter the United States.
“In order to get a visa, first they had to get an appointment with the American embassy,” Greiss said. “But so many people were trying to leave via Poland at that time that the appointments that they’re scheduling now are three years [out].”
So Greiss reached out to his congressman, US Representative Hakeem Jeffries, and New York Senator Chuck Schumer. With Jeffries and Schumer’s help, the visas were approved, and the troupe arrived July 22 after a 26-hour journey.
“By the first week, we were able to partner with an organization called Sing for Hope, which is a youth organization that uses the arts to promote peace and diversity,” Greiss said. Sing for Hope invited the troupe to attend the Young at Arts camp in Ivoryton, Conn., where the Ukrainian children spent a week alongside American teens.
Following performances in Brooklyn, Yonkers, N.Y., Philadelphia, and Hartford, the “Mom on Skype” tour comes to an end with the Brookline dates. Then the children will head back to Ukraine, where their families have so far remained unharmed. But for Greiss, their visit has made a huge impression.
“Why is [theater] as important as clean air and the water supply and the defense budget?,” Greiss said. “I’ve always felt it was. But this, in my mind, was the actualization of it: that there’s a war going on, there are missiles and bombs aimed at these children that could be dropping outside the basement anytime. And what do they do? They put on a play.”
MOM ON SKYPE
At Center Makor, 384 Harvard St., Brookline. Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $25-$75. www.centermakor.org