There are grand political themes and exceptionally intimate granular-level personal matters splendidly illustrated in the Round House Theatre’s stunningly dark, world-premiere production of Martyna Majok’s Ironbound.
Majok is an award-winning playwright not produced before in the DC area as far as I am aware. From her website I learned that she was born in Poland, came to America and “aged in Jersey and Chicago.” Hers is a voice to be heard. Majok aims and readily succeeds in introducing audiences to those we probably don’t often notice or hear; the marginalized immigrant doing the “ugly jobs” in America.
Under the convincingly heartfelt, sly direction of Daniella Topol, the Round House production gives audiences a pungent, though very palatable, taste of being trapped as an unvalued commodity in the American economic system.
I, for one, became an interloper in the life of a very determined Eastern European immigrant as she sought a better life in America starting in 1992. Over about nine connected back-and-forth scenes, the play follows Darja over her exhausting life in the industrial wasteland of Northern New Jersey until 2006, until she is 42. Thinking back, 1992 is a year of significance. It was not long after the upheaval from the fall of the Soviet Union, the formation of the newly independent states of the former Soviet republics, the breaking-up of Yugoslavia, and the carnage from the beginnings of the Bosnian War.
For Darja, the Eastern European woman at the center of Ironbound, life is constant calculations to determine if her next decision is a winning one, or just will bring more dismay, if not physical harm. Ironbound is full of Darja’s probing to figure out what she might receive in return for her own particular actions. Rest assured, there are also plenty of hints of sunlight and sharp witty humor.
The relentlessly stressed-out Darja is played by an ablaze Alexandra Henrikson. She is a fierce, fist-clinched, stubborn, resilient, calculating, deeply scared and scarred Darja. It is a performance that will bring notice. Over time, we learn that Darja has two ex-husbands, a run-away son, and a semi-long-term boy-friend. Her first husband, an immigrant named Maks, had his own dreams of becoming as a Blues musician in Chicago. Not happy with their hard scrabble life, he leaves Darja to follow his dream, though it is she that decides not to go with him when he offers her a bus ticket. Maks is played by Josiah Bania, as an easy going, romantic. He would be most happy if Darja would only sing with him. To Maks singing together is more intimate than sex.
Over the course of a quickly moving 90 minute, intermission-free play, Darja tries to scrap together low wage jobs until the local factory closes. A second job caring for a woman in need ends abruptly. Darja’s coping mechanisms and pride can be off-putting even to a safe young Catholic prep school student (William Vaughn) who wants to be helpful. For him money is easy to come by. For Darja, charity carries burdens.
In her back-and-forth dealings with her bewildered current boyfriend Tommy, we come to know deeper aspects of Darja. We first see Tommy as an unlikeable cheat. But then, as written by Majok, Tommy’s character grows into a more fully realized caring, rather befuddled lonely individual. As time passes, Tommy gives off plenty of long-term value for Darja to calculate its value. I will not give away the outcomes of their negotiations though formidable connection with her true first-love, her run-away son, have a major role. Jefferson A. Russell plays Tommy as a robustly likeable, in his own way unwaveringly steadfast, yet tangled-up in blue, dazed and confused postal worker who comes late to discover his love for Darja.
The Ironbound artistic and design team of James Kronzer (set), Eric Shimelonis (sound), and Brian MacDevitt and Andrew R. Cissna (lighting), brought forth a forlorn, visual, aural industrial wasteland landscape. It was like looking out the window of an Amtrak going through the Meadowlands. There are steel girders, strewn tires, and a single sodium vapor street light often punctuated by the sounds of trains, honking horns and headlights. In one terrifying scene, a single bench becomes an object as a not small enough hiding place.
Lynn Watson deserves kudos for her work with the actors as several speak English dialogue with accomplished Eastern European accents.
Kathleen C. Geldard’s costuming for Henrikson in her role as Darja pictorial images as graphic cues. With a single hooded parka, jeans covering a white scooped neck tee, Geldard has the audience “know” Darja as both a youthful, sensual being with a vigorous demeanor or as an older, withdrawn, hidden away woman with survival on her mind. Then add what Henrikson accomplishes with her hair; either up-and-tightly bound, or let falling loosely.
Ironbound was originally commissioned by a grant from the National New Play Network. The Round House Theatre production is part of the Women’s Voices Theater FestivaWomen’s Voices Theater Festival dedicated to featuring new work by female playwrights that highlights the scope of plays being written by women.
Please be curious. Ironbound is its own kind of agit-prop from a new generation of playwrights; in this case a woman playwright. It is work that is accessible to Baby Boomers, Millennials, and those in-between. I want to believe there is also a ready audience from those rarely with the opportunity to see themselves depicted on stage; those like Darja who toil and toil and have neither the time nor the ready cash for theater.
Don’t be put off by Ironbound as a challenging work. If you choose not to see it, you will miss a courageous production that helps explain, in its own way, the current rise of certain individuals in the 2016 race for U.S. President.
Ironbound is theater that gives audiences an opportunity to be affected by new voices from new playwrights with much different backgrounds than regular DC-area theater-goers. Given current world events, next time it may well be a Syrian voice we hear on stage having left their own horrors in hopes of a better life in America. After all, these new stories are not so unlike those of my own grandparents when they came to America over 100 years ago seeking a better life. Later in life, I came to know that they had plenty of their own turmoil hidden away.
Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.
Note: Don’t know much about the Ironbound district of Newark, NJ. Here are a couple of links that might be of interest, including one from the Washington Post: