Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
But first, we have Ironbound, which I highly recommend to theatregoers who welcome a play with intellectual and emotional meat on its bones, as well as those who appreciate a bravura performance. That performance is from Brittany D. Parker, who is by turns heartbreaking, infuriating, and inspiring as the central character, Darya. Director Wendy Knox actually has assembled a quartet of four outstanding actors for Ironbound and allows all of them to make their characters indelibly real, not only through the playwright's lines but through small gestures, glances, moves and silences.
Darya is a Polish immigrant whom we meet as a 42-year-old woman sitting at a bus stop in an industrial wasteland near Elizabeth, New Jersey. The year is 2014. Tommy (Carl Schoenborn), her on and off boyfriend, is pleading for her to take him back after she learns about his infidelities. Darya needs him–he has steady work for the post office, while she scrapes by with work she detests as a cleaning woman. He has a car while she depends on the erratic local bus service. Still, Darya drives a hard bargain, for it appears that Tommy needs her as well. A big bone of contention is how to deal with Darya's 22-year-old son, who is prone to violence and has recently taken off with Darya's car.
In the course of 90 minutes without intermission we see Darya and first husband, Maks (Benjamin Dutcher), in 1990. Darya and Maks immigrated to America together and found work in a factory near the bus stop where the play begins. However, they have different notions of the American Dream, causing a rift between them. Once on her own, Darya remarries, this time to her boss at the factory where she continues to hold down her cherished steady job. This marriage becomes a nightmare and when the factory shuts down in 2006, Darya flees, finding shelter at that same bus stop. We learn this through an encounter with Vic (Jack Bonko), a young hustler. Vic, who is alone in life in quite different ways than Darya, offers her a helping hand, but she is unable to understand his good-hearted impulse.
We return from each of those flashbacks to Darya and Tommy. The possibility of Darya finding a port in her stormy life and Tommy finding constancy in his need for companionship, dangles before them, tempting each of them to make compromises that would leave them with less than they may have hoped for, but at least a base to stop their downward freefall and, as Tommy poignantly says, "That's not nothing."
Darya responds to a lot of the dialogue with silence and stony expressions, but actor Parker loads those silences, shapes her face and directs her eyes with an eloquence that conveys meaning beyond words. Darya has been put through the wringer by whatever hardships she faced in Poland, followed by disappointment in her life in America, as well as a knack for making bad decisions, certainly with her first two husbands, making her all the more afraid to make another decision, lest it lead her life to descend to even greater depths. Parker makes us feel the conflict between Darya's longings and her fears, leaving her painfully immobile. The only emotion she dares reveal is her anger.
Schoenborn is remarkably poignant as Tommy. He does not hold back from letting us see all the ways in which the guy is a loser, and yet, Schoenborn also lets us see a certain naivete in Tommy, a cluelessness about how to negotiate the landscape of the heart, which has left him sad and alone and draws our sympathy. Dutcher gives a strong performance as Maks, Darya's first husband, and his blues musician dreams that are incompatible with Darya's need for security. The two actors present a strong current of sexual attraction between Darya and Maks, but that is not enough to bridge the gap between them. Bonko, who plays Vic, initially seemed older than the high school student he is meant to be, which made his juvenile behavior at first seem out of place. Once it is understood how young Vic is, his performance seems more authentic, allowing Bonko to make Vic's forced gaiety, thinly masking his loneliness, and his intuitive connection with Darya, deeply moving.
Amelia Cheever's costumes perfectly match the untethered nature of each character's life, seeming to be patched together from different outfits. Joe Stanley designed a wonderful set that depicts the debris left behind by the shuttered factory, spreading out as litter at the forsaken bus stop where every scene plays out. Sound designer Dan Dukich provides the intrusive noise of cars, trucks and buses, along with apt musical transitions between scenes, and light designer Tone Stoeri casts a sense of twilight over Darya's twenty-four-year saga.
Though it is not mentioned in the play, I learned that Ironbound is a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, which has historically housed immigrants, including a large number from Poland, and where employment was typically found in the neighborhood's many factories. This makes total sense as the setting for this story of a Polish immigrant woman, even though the published play states it takes please near Elizabeth, an even more industrialized city adjacent to Newark. Prior to knowing it as a geographical reference, I was conceiving of "ironbound" as the constrictions on a life surrounded by hulking factories, heat, noise and grit, placed on the Darya's ability to even articulate her dreams, let alone realize them. I still stand by that understanding of the play's title.
While Ironbound is a serious work, it contains humor, albeit of a dark nature, for no one could survive a life such as Darya's without cultivating a sense of humor. I give Ironbound my highest recommendation, along with my gratitude for the return of Frank Theatre in full force. Their production of Fetal will have a return engagement later this winter, and while you are getting your tickets for Ironbound, you may consider, if you missed its premiere run, to catch it as well.
Ironbound runs through February 11, 2024, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. For information and tickets, please visit franktheatre.org.
Playwright: Martyna Majok; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costume Design: Amelia Cheever; Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Sound Designer: Dan Dukich; Dramaturg: Beth Cleary; Dialog Coach: Gillian Constable; Stage Managers: Spencer Putney and John Novak.
Cast: Jack Bonko (Vic), Benjamin Dutcher (Maks), Brittany D. Parker (Darya), Carl Schoenborn (Tommy).