Her face is banged up and she lights a small votive candle before saying a prayer. Although it is freezing, she has created a makeshift bed outside using her white parka as a mattress and an old spare tire as a pillow. She settles down to sleep and is soon awoken by a young African-American man who is concerned about the apparently homeless person on the ground.
Darja’s life is hard. She had intended to spend the night in the old abandoned factory across the street from this deserted bus stop in northern New Jersey, but even that didn’t work out.
Ironbound by Martyna Majok tells the story of Darja, a working class Polish immigrant who has struggled for the last 20 years in the United States. Presented by Simpatico Theatre, it’s a gripping journey through time.
Each scene takes place at the same deserted bus stop in Elizabeth, New Jersey, outside Newark. The play’s title refers to a part of Newark that used to house working factories. These factories are now closed but many of the old and rundown buildings remain, like ghosts of another time. Some have been converted for other uses, but the memory of what once was lives on, triggering despair and hopelessness. Currently the neighborhood is home to a large Portuguese and Brazilian population, as well as African-Americans and other ethnic immigrants from Latin America and Europe.
Fortunately, there has been some revitalization. Nevertheless, crime is still a problem. It is dangerous at night. Waiting at a bus stop alone in the evening is a last resort – something only those with no alternative will do. The choice of this godforsaken bus stop as the set for the entire play indicates how desperate and precarious Darja’s life has been.
The bus stop is where Darja converses and makes out with her first husband, Maks, whom she followed to the United States from Poland, and where she argues with her current lover, Tommy. The play begins in 2014 and flashes back to key moments in 1992 and 2006.
Director Harriet Power leads a small cast of four talented actors. The set, designed by Colin McIlvaine, is sparse, but it suggests the seedy parts of the Newark/Elizabeth area very well — with the bus shelter and bench, a concrete wall behind it, with some loose bricks on the ground. Nearby we see a junk yard complete with a raggedy barbed-wire fence, an old tire, rags, wire milk carton, bricks and scrap metal.
The sound design (by Daniel Kontz) and lighting (by Jerold R. Forsyth) are also intrinsic to this production’s success. The sound of buses pulling up at the bus stop, with doors opening and closing, is convincing, even though we never see the buses. Police sirens and other traffic noises, plus music from Tommy’s car, punctuate and elucidate the action. The physical set never changes, but lighting and projection of the year and season announce the flashbacks and illuminate the darkness of the night. The costume design by Natalia de la Torre displays the characters’ occupations and economic class and helps situate the action in time. For example, Darja and Maks both wear factory uniform shirts in the flashback to 1992, a clear indication that they work in the same factory.
The acting in this play is strong and earthy. As Darja, Julianna Zinkel speaks in a credible Polish accent, and I found her gestures and movements to be unique and fitting for her character. She was dynamic and able to believably portray Darja both as a twenty-year-old and as middle aged. Zinkel’s Darja is an alluring woman who just can’t seem to get it right. Zinkel interacts with all of the other performers and is onstage the entire 95 minutes, which demands much stamina and concentration.
Allen Radway expertly plays her current American-born lover, the postman Tommy. At first Tommy is bumbling and insecure. He is dominated and shamed by Darja, but later returns with strength, love and respect — just when Darja needs it most. Joseph Acquaye, as Vic, is the Good Samaritan who helps Darja when she has been abused. This character, who also raps, challenges some of her stereotypes.
Darja’s ex-husband Maks, played by Mitchell Bloom, is my favorite character. He speaks more Polish than Darja and she chastens him to speak English. Even at twenty, recently married, Darja is already somewhat jaded and fixated on work and money. Maks, on the other hand, has a dream that he is determined to follow. He is less worried about money and more focused on his dream. He tries to convince Darja to support him. This singular hope amidst their bleak reality as poor immigrants is both bittersweet and inspiring.
Ironbound is an engaging and intense play. It is gritty and tough, and there is never a dull moment. There are even some humorous instances. The characters are not perfect. They are human with faults and problems. The play presents the difficult life of an immigrant from her perspective. None of her employers are seen nor do they talk in this play. Darja struggles, but she is stubborn and independent. She is extremely proud. This is her story, artfully written by Martyna Majok.
I highly recommend Simpatico Theatre Ironbound, especially for those interested in immigration and who enjoy realistic portrayals of current issues. Note that after the Sunday March 26th performance, there will be a talkback discussion with the playwright!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Ironbound plays through April 2, 2017 at Simpatico Theatre, performing at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake — 302 S. Hicks Street (between Spruce and Pine) in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets can be purchased online.