Set at a bus stop in front of a concrete wall – highway overpass, maybe – in a dangerous neighborhood in a rundown New Jersey town, “Ironbound” is bleak. While the latest production at the Gamm Theatre paints a pretty gray picture, there is some light too.
We meet Darja (Donnla Hughes) at the bus stop. Tommy (Steve Kidd), her live-in companion, confronts her, trying to get her to get in his car for the ride home. Darja is fed up with Tommy’s cheating on her. He says he made a mistake. “Fourteen times not a mistake,” says Darja. “Fourteen times is career.”
We learn a lot about the two of them and their rocky relationship. Darja’s worried about her son, Alex, who took her car and has been gone for a few days. Tommy’s tired of having to help with Alex, who struggles with some form of addiction.
Tommy’s not the nicest of guys, but he provides a bit of stability. It comes with a price, and Darja’s gotten to the point where she’s not willing to pay it.
We jump back in time to see a different Darja – happier, more hopeful – with her first husband, Maks (Gunnar Henderson). She has followed him from their native Poland, chasing the American Dream. They find factory work, but Maks has a stronger dream – to become a blues performer in Chicago.
We jump forward to another moment with Tommy, where he makes it clear that while Darja can stay in the apartment if she can pay her share of the rent, he intends to pursue his relationship with Linda, the rich woman whose house Darja cleans.
We jump back again to a time between Maks and Tommy. Darja is curled up sleeping behind the bus stop when she’s awakened by Vic (Rodney Witherspoon II), a young man who appears to be another resident of the street but is more than that. Darja’s spending the night on the street to escape the violence of her second husband, the manager of the since shut-down factory where she worked. To Vic, she’s a “legit battered woman,” and he wants to help her. He offers her the chance to eat and to get a hotel, but she refuses.
Jump forward again to Tommy, now wanting to make up with Darja. “It is over with Linda?” she asks. Not a confirmation, really, but full knowledge of the reason he’s back. He wants to marry her, but Darja won’t say yes until she’s able to negotiate what she’ll get out of it.
Martyna Majok has crafted a very tight 22-year slice of life of a woman who flies under so many radars and survives despite all the struggles thrown her way. The show draws from the experiences of Majok’s mother, just one of a countless number of people whom Tony Estrella refers to as “an often-invisible population.”
There are only four players in this show, and each is superb. Manchester and Witherspoon show us vastly different survivors, both of whom care for Darja in different ways. One’s her husband, the other is simply someone who cares about Darja as a lost soul.
Kidd is wonderful as Tommy. A tough Jersey boy, he’s frustrated with Darja, disgusted with himself, and really in love with Darja. His Jerseyisms aren’t forced – and he’s got some terrific malapropisms, like accusing Darja of “crossifying” him.
Hughes deserves the standing ovation she got. She’s on stage 100% of the time and jumps into a new Darja for each of the snapshot screens. From hopeful and looking forward to her new future to resolved and determined to make her future work, Hughes is perfect.
“Ironbound” is so well done, it’s easy to believe that while it’s the story of one woman, it mirrors the experiences of millions who came here with only the American Promise in their pockets.
“Ironbound” runs through April 10 at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick. For tickets and information, call 401.723.4266 or visit their website at www.gammtheatre.org.