Last night I was invited to Solo Theater's premier, "Motinos Pienas" (Mother's Milk), based on the best selling novel by Latvian writer, Nora Iksten. The one-woman power house, classically trained actress, Birutė Mar, for an intensive hour and a half embodies two women. One is the Mother, born in Latvia in 1944, who witnesses her father beaten and murdered by Soviet soldiers for trying to stop them from chopping down fir trees on his land. She is traumatized for life and despite her brilliance as a doctor, lives a life steeped in alcohol abuse and pills. She dreams of a free Latvia. The second is the daughter, born in 1969 into Soviet power, who whole heartedly believes in Soviet might and the simple goodness of life and is baffled even by the mention of Latvia as a homeland. A simple pair of glasses and an encyclopedia of subtle movement and body language are the theatrical tools that Mar employs to shift between the characters of the mother and daughter on stage. She never slips up, not even once.
The play brings back to life for the audience the kitsch and pomp and circumstance of the Soviet era, but also the betrayals, the meanness, the cynicism. Perhaps for me the most heart breaking moment comes when the daughter is forced to sign a KGB document, betraying her beloved literature teacher, Bloom, who opens young adults' hearts to poetry, ancient churches in ruins, art, but most importantly those whisperings of the soul that make one human. This is precisely what people were robbed of in the Soviet era this play tells us.
After the play, sipping vodka and eating pickles - Soviet-era fare - members of the audience and the theater company, who had lived through the Soviet era themselves, shared their memories and reactions to the play. Some felt nostalgia, others disgust. For me, as the only American in the audience, but one who lived for a year in Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the death throes of the regime in 1988-1989, I was struck at how the vestiges of Soviet emotional and mental cruelty still exist in contemporary Lithuania, even 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. This play forces all of us to stop and think and take account of our own actions and attitudes. This is a play about collective trauma lived out tragically through individual trauma in the small lives of overlooked people. The play makes no grandiose or pompous statements, draws no political conclusions, but gives us all an opportunity to come together and reflect on what it takes to remain simply human, with a full palette of emotions while living within a regime that systematically seeks to stamp out all that is human in the societal fabric and in one's soul.