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Theatre in Review: Ironbound (Women's Project/Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Marin Ireland, Morgan Spector. Photo: Sandra Coudert

Marin Ireland is the iron woman at the center of Ironbound: As Darja, a Polish immigrant who spends most of her life in America at or below the poverty line, she displays a flinty independence and wicked wit that are scarily formidable. Our society tends to marginalize people of her class, but Darja will not be dismissed or denied. Summing up her relationship with her current lover, she says, "I weighed you on scale and said mmm okay," rendering that "mmm" as the most devastating of cold-eyed judgments. She has reason for her disaffection, as Tommy, the man in question, has been serially unfaithful. Trying to get an exact number of liaisons out of him, she reaches fourteen, and renders her verdict: "Fourteen times is not mistake. Fourteen times is career." When he tries to get her to come back to him, she agrees -- for $3,000. It's typical of Darja that she provides an itemized list of how exactly she intends to spend the money.

Such calculations are the result of a life spent struggling to thrive in the stoniest ground. The play's title refers to the section of Newark, New Jersey, that once was an industrial powerhouse and is now mostly an economic graveyard. Once a place of opportunity for Darja, it is now challenging territory to scratch out a living. Seemingly everything has run out on Darja -- two husbands, Tommy (with whom she has lived for six years), her troubled son, her career as a factory worker. The clock is running on her second job, cleaning houses, as well: One of her clients, Linda (a married woman who, incidentally, is sleeping with Tommy), has fired her and trashed her to all her clients. This doesn't faze Darja, who sneaks into Linda's house and burns her clothes.

Ironbound catches up with Darja at three points in her life: In 1992, when she and her first husband, Maks, are working in a paper factory and arguing about the future; in 2006, when her second (and apparently more prosperous) marriage has gone south; and in 2014, when she and Tommy are trying to come to terms with each other. Maks, also a Polish immigrant, is the love of her life --- and, in Josiah Bania's performance, it's easy to see why; the actor radiates an easy charm and pronounced chemistry with Ireland that makes them seem like a natural couple. (Maks is also the father of Darja's son.) But Maks, who plays a mean harmonica, wants to move to Chicago and possibly make a career as a musician; Darja, who has the cold practicality of one who has never had much in life, can't give up the security of a job in hand for an uncertain future. (She clearly cannot process the idea of music as a career.) In 2006, on the run from her abusive second husband, she encounters a young gay hustler who offers her money for a hotel room -- an offer she is almost ready to take until she realizes that he is a wealthy kid from Seton Hall Prep, and her innate independence kicks in. In 2014, she and Tommy hash out their considerable store of problems -- his cheating, the fact that she has tapped his phone, his threat to leave her for Linda, her scathing assertion that the wealthy Linda sees him only as a sex toy, her addicted son -- before the action flashes back to the moment of heartbreak that put her on the road to her current circumstances.

The playwright, Martyna Majok, sketches in each of these scenes with skill and penetrating insight into her characters, but she also leaves a surprising amount of crucial information to be inferred. Aside from the fact that Darja's second husband was a boss at the factory and that he started to hit her, their entire relationship is a blank. Many of Darja's actions are dictated by her all-consuming love for her son, but we never get any sense of what he is like. The scene with Vic, the teen hustler, is touching -- especially the moment when, after a lengthy back-and-forth, she finally accepts a hundred dollar bill from him -- but he is hardly central to her story and the scene is afflicted with a certain cutesiness: Would Vic really wear his school tie underneath his elaborate "gangsta" outfit?

There's another, slightly bemusing fact: Even though we encounter Darja at various times over nearly 20 years, she never really ages or changes. She is the same woman at 22 as she is at 40, speaking the same broken English and offering the same spiky attitude. There's not enough sense of how the years have shaped her; it's a given that events have made her more suspicious and self-protective, but might she not also be more tired, more wounded, more genuinely fearful of the future? Ultimately, Ironbound has nothing to say about this.

Still, Ireland is, as always, a force of nature, armed with a gaze that strips away sentimentality the way turpentine takes paint off walls, and a smile that is most pronounced at the moment when all hope has vanished. As mentioned, Bania infuses his scenes with tremendous charm; Shiloh Fernandez makes Vic into a touching lost boy, caught between his desires and his family's expectations; and Morgan Spector, as Tommy, provides Ireland with an equally tough negotiator. The director, Daniella Topol, clearly has a sharp eye for casting.

Topol also has seen to it that Ironbound has a starkly effective production design. Justin Townsend is best known as a lighting designer, but here he does double duty: His set, depicting a bus stop near the ruined factory where Darja once toiled, consists of an all-black environment marked by a simple bench and, overhead, four industrial girders spanning the length of the theatre. His lighting ranges from an orange halogen glare to a cold moonlight wash and other time-of-day looks. Kaye Voyce's costumes are right for each character -- check out the New Jersey Devils jacket favored by Tommy, and Vic's elaborate hip-hop getup -- and Jane Shaw's sound design lends a sense of the nearby highway with various car-related effects; she also contributes to the scene in which Tommy serenades Darja with Bruce Springsteen's "Secret Garden" from his car CD player.

Even at its weakest, Ironbound offers a view into the lives of characters we rarely see on stage, and they are rendered with considerable perception and wit. It would be nice, however, if this collection of scenes from one woman's life added up to a more complete portrait. Darja, a woman who has been perpetually shortchanged, deserves more. -- David Barbour

(28 March 2016)

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