'Ya Mama!" at Cleveland Public Theatre is a One-Woman Show Ya Gotta See

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'Ya Mama!" at Cleveland Public Theatre is a One-Woman Show Ya Gotta See
Steven Wagner Photography

Okay, just so there’s no confusion about the currently running theatrical Mammas (with exclamation points!): Mamma Mia! is the musical now at the Great Lakes Theater while Ya Mama! is the one-person show that just opened at Cleveland Public Theatre. They’re both about mammas, however you spell them, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Well, there actually is one shared aspect since both of these shows have been seen in Cleveland before. The ABBA jukebox musical has been popping up on various tours for a good long time while Ya Mama!, written and performed by Nina Domingue, had a previous CPT production in 2012.

The return of Domingue is always a welcome sight since she ignites the stage with her spot-on characterizations and stage movement that is gloriously expressive. Once again, she is telling her own story of growing up in the fires of her own personal hell: her mother committed suicide by drinking drain cleaner when Nina was just four years old. Eventually, her father married a woman named Betty who turned out to be psychologically and physically abusive to the growing Nina.

Using quicksilver persona shifts, Domingue seamlessly fashions scenes involving three or more characters, and it’s a tribute to her talent that we never get those characters confused. These are the moments that work best and resonate most effectively. When Betty snaps at Nina, ordering her to rewash the laundry if there’s speck of lint on anything, your heart sinks along with the young girl’s.

As Nina grows into adulthood she begins having her own kids, hacking her way through the jungle of motherhood issues (What do you do when a child is sick?) without having the guiding light that she was denied from her own mothering wasteland. Her challenges from the five-day labor she experienced with her first child are both agonizing and hilarious.

In this stage iteration, Domingue is joined by Bill Ransom, sitting high above and behind the performer, contributing deft touches of percussion—a rattle of wood blocks here and a sprightly bongo riff there. His efforts add a lovely texture to the proceedings that amplify the emotions at key times.

Under the sensitive direction of Nathan Henry. Domingue tells about her life in 75 minutes of riveting storytelling. She does her remarkable work in a scenic design by Inda Blatch-Geib that is sometimes startlingly powerful (getting trapped in a large bookcase with collapsed shelves) and at other times just startling for no particular reason (a door with a broken shard of another door sticking out from it).

As was the case six years ago, Domingue’s writing can tend towards the didactic when she wants to clearly make a point about her life. This is completely understandable on an emotional level, but theatrically it pulls the audience out of the moment, particularly at the end when the character Nina takes an emotional victory lap.

One wishes Domingue the playwright would fully trust her word artistry by just telling the story, avoid summarizing, and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions. But if you long to see an actor in full control of her impressive capabilities, ya gotta see Ya Mama!

Ya Mama!
Through October 27 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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