BWW Review: Round House Theatre's IRONBOUND Simmers Quietly
If I were to describe Martyna Majok's IRONBOUND in but a few words, I would refer to it as follows: "a deceptively simple, thought-provoking, and elegant work of art." This world premiere is Round House Theatre's contribution to Washington, DC's unprecedented Women's Voices Theater Festival, and it's a decidedly unmissable one to be sure.
Ms. Majok introduces us to Darja (Alexandra Henrikson, last seen on Broadway in FISH IN THE DARK), a Polish immigrant trying to make ends meet in the Newark area of New Jersey by working in factories (until they close) and cleaning houses of people in more affluent suburbs like Montclair. We see her interact with the men in her life - her first husband Maks (Josiah Bania) and her latest companion, Tommy (Round House Theatre regular Jefferson A. Russell). From those encounters, we learn of her struggle to simply survive and maintain some kind of dignity as hard as it might be. The kind of men she engages with aren't necessarily those that you and I might choose for ourselves - and Darja is aware they're not exactly the cream of the crop - but a simple cost and benefit analysis makes it clear to her that there's some benefit in maintaining a relationship with them, at least in the here and now. In the case of Tommy, for example, it's insurance for her troubled 20-something son.
While the men in her life and her relationship status may minimally change from her 20s to her 40s (the story is told non-linearly), her actual circumstances do not. As the name of the play would suggest ("Ironbound" refers to an unincorporated township in Newark that's particularly bleak, unchanging, and terrible), Darja's stuck - both literally and figuratively. Like waiting for a bus that never comes (she doesn't have a car), she waits for her personal economic/social predicament to change, but has enough of a realistic notion about the way life works for people like her to realize that a dramatic shift in circumstance is unlikely. Despite her challenges, she's self-reliant to a fault and is not one to accept charity even in the darkest of times. This is no more apparent than when she encounters Vic, a prep school student (extraordinarily well played by William Vaughan) who offers her some assistance when he finds her sleeping near a bridge in a seedy area. He looks like a bit of a hoodlum and engages in behavior that would be considered deviant by most, but appearances (at least in his case, not hers) can be deceiving. (At Round House, it must be said, Kathleen Geldard's costume for Vic is effective in highlighting this contrast.)
Majok's quietly simmering and no-frills play is effective for many reasons. I'll identify a few. First, while Darja is probably not unlike women we've seen profiled on documentaries on the working poor, we have a central character with a bit of a contrast. She's witty, strong and determined, with the 'street smarts' to claw her way through life, but she's also painfully aware of the environment that she finds herself in (Henrikson excels at drawing attention to these qualities in her tour-de-force performance). Majok proves exceptional at writing a richly-drawn character that sheds light on the immigrant experience and the experience of the working poor, but not in a typical and/or heartwarmingly saccharine way. Second, Darja is not the only richly-drawn character with contrasts featured in Majok's play. All of the men Darja encounters are the same way. There's Vic, as mentioned before, but there's also Majx who is a creative dreamer with a similar immigrant story to that of Darja. Tommy's contrasting sides are most apparent in his relationship with Darja and other women. Third, Majok takes the audience into Darja's thought-process in a unique and sophisticated way. The work is not necessarily especially plot-driven (at least in a literal way), but it's not so abstract and wordy that all sense of connection to the character's real world and realistic plight is lost on a diverse audience. We get to know Darja very well, but the way that Majok presents her plight allows for some soul-searching on the larger socioeconomic issues at play in her work.
In her director role, Daniella Topol is successful in working in this middle ground of a not-so-abstract play, but not a plot-driven one either. The non-linear storytelling could pose some challenges to some directors, but at Round House, all of the transitions in actual time are seamless though still easily identified by audience members (lighting/sound cues, and small costume changes in the case of Henrikson). She brings out the best in all of her actors, who are all giving some very strong performances.
The technical elements are also worthy of mention here, not necessarily because they're spectacular -that's not what this kind of play calls for, of course - but because they reinforce the theme of being stuck, which is so significant in Majok's play. James Kronzer's scenic design and Brian MacDevitt and Andrew Cissna's lighting design highlight the unchanging and austere Ironbound area that Darja frequents. Bridges, old tires, a bench, and a streetlamp are all that we see, and they do not change. Eric Shimelonis' sound design/compositions also provide a similar kind of ambience.
All in all, this is one to check out - whether here in DC or when Majok's play makes its New York City premiere Off-Broadway later on.
Running Time: Around 90 minutes with no intermission.
IRONBOUND plays at Round House Theatre - 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD - through October 4. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100 or purchase them online.