March 26, 2016

"Ironbound" Offers an Unyielding Picture of the Woes Confronting Working-Class Women

The actress Marin Ireland can do no wrong in my book and she shows why that's so in Ironbound, a drama about a Polish immigrant that's playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through April 24. The problem for me is that despite Ireland's superb performance, the play failed to make me feel for her beleaguered character.

Time may have something to do with that. In just 80 minutes, playwright Martyna Majok chronicles two decades in the life of a woman named Darja who lives in one of the depressed communities that used to be the heart of the industrial, or ironbound, belt of New Jersey and who spends a lot of time at an isolated bus stop although she never seems to be going anywhere.

The play starts with an argument between Darja and her boyfriend Tommy after she's found out that he's not only been cheating on her but doing it with the wealthy woman whose house Darja cleans. Then the story jumps back to Darja's arrival in this country with a husband whose dreams were bigger than his love for her. 

There's also talk about an abusive second husband we never see and an encounter with a kid who reminds Darja of the son who has also disappointed her. Then it's back to the present with Tommy. That's a lot of back and forth—not to mention a lot of plot to absorb—in a very small amount of time. 

Majok, who immigrated to this country when she was five and says she based Darja somewhat on her mother, tries to lighten things up with some pungent humor (click here to read a Q&A with her). And director Daniella Topol tries to keep things moving, leaning heavily on lighting designer Justin Townsend to signal the shifts in time. 

Ironbound is a co-production of the Women's Project Theater, which promotes the work of female playwrights, directors and actors and the play taps into the frustrations that so many working-class women experience: never having enough money, never getting a chance at the right jobs, too seldom getting enough love to make up the difference.

It's the kind of stuff I'm always saying I want plays to take on and yet I felt as though this play was telling me these things (yelling them, actually since the arguments between Darja and Tommy are high-decibel) instead of helping me to experience them the way the best theater does.

Still, the men in Darja's lives are nicely portrayed by Morgan Spector (bristling with both swagger and insecurity as Tommy) Josiah Bania (the playwright's husband as the dreamy first husband), and Shiloh Fernandez (in an attention-grabbing stage debut as the kid).

But the weight falls on Marin, who took over the role when the show was already in rehearsal and Gina Gershon dropped out. Up to the task, Marin makes Darja a multi-layered woman, equal parts seductive, annoying, disheartened, resilient. 

With the shrug of her shoulder she expresses what Darja is feeling and with a slight change in her accent—more pronounced just after arrival, softened after years in the U.S.—she signals where we are in the story. It's hard to imagine the play without her.

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