Above: Steve Kidd (Tommy) and Donnla Hughes (Darja) in ‘Ironbound.’ Photos courtesy of The Gamm Theatre
Darja needs a car.
She needs money.
She needs her son to return.
She wants love.
But love seems a luxury for this Polish immigrant living in Newark, New Jersey. She negotiates instead.
This is Ironbound, Martyna Majok’s 90-minute exploration of her Polish mother’s life after coming to the U.S., playing now at the Gamm Theatre through April 10. According to Majok, her mother didn’t talk to her for a year after seeing an early version of the play. That’s understandable – Darja, Majok’s mother stand-in, hasn’t made great choices.
The play is set at a bus stop in the Ironbound area of Newark – an area hard by Elizabeth, land of factories, active and otherwise, including one where Darja works or worked, depending on the scene. Through simple lighting changes and minimal costume alterations, the play moves elegantly backward and forward across 22 years. Directed by Rachel Walshe, the 4-member cast is excellent, starting with Donnla Hughes, as Darja. Hughes is onstage for the entire 90-minute play – strong, tough, frustrated, loving, angry and, ultimately, complicit.
Darja has come to New Jersey with Maks, played by the sympathetic Gunnar Manchester. Maks has dreams of Chicago (why not?) and blues musician stardom but Darja can’t follow his dream. Instead, she stays behind in Newark because, as she tells him, she has this factory job! She ends up marrying a man we do not meet, though we see his handiwork on Darja’s face in a later scene.
That’s when Darja, back at the bus stop, meets Vic, played by the charming Rodney Witherspoon, a teenager with a big heart, confused by this wounded 30-something woman trying to sleep against a wall.
Tommy (Steve Kidd) is the man Darja is with in the beginning, the middle and the end of Ironbound. Kidd is a lousy boyfriend or maybe just confused and frustrated by Darja. It’s hard to know what to think of either Darja or Tommy. He’s a schmuck and she’s allowed herself to be ruled by men, including Tommy, openly cheating on her, and her son, who has some bad habits. We want more for her but what does Darja want?
As heavy as the subject matter is, Ironbound offers some humor, though it is often dark, much like the play itself, which appears to take place always at night, when life always seems more sinister and desperate.
This is a really well done review, Elizabeth. I had the pleasure of seeing this play last night and it is excellent, featuring some of the best acting I’ve seen on any stage in Rhode Island. The play, biting, funny, heart rending, offers an intimate glimpse of the hard life often experienced by recent immigrants. Hearing the slavic accents and the feeling of displacement of life-building in a foreign place, one can’t help but think about millions of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes who will have to find a new way of life in a new country. And they are the lucky ones.
I love that Gamm plays always leave one discussing the play when you have left the theatre. In this case, there was a disagreement among 4 of us, about what we thought the ending indicated. This actually seemed to make Steve Kidd happy when we shared it with him after the show.
I think the acting at The Gamm is reliably strong. Also, the Artistic Director has an uncanny ability to pick shows well in advance that turn out to be incredibly relevant to the times.
Full disclosure, I am a Gamm Board member, but I don’t think that changes any of the above.