PHOTO: Caption: Josiah Bania (Maks) and Alexandra Henrikson (Darja) in Round House Theatre’s current production of Ironbound. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels
BY STEVE LAROCQUE
By the time I got to see Ironbound, the Women’s Voices Theater Festival play at Round House Theater, several reviews, overwhelmingly positive, had already come out.
Rather than trying to duplicate the well-deserved praise the show has received, I will simply concur. Performances and production values are first-rate, with a set that, for me, evokes the powerful industrial images of Charles Sheeler, the American modernist. Well done.
So … what shall we talk about?
How about the play itself – the story? That’s what the audience supposedly comes for.
Jefferson A. Russell (Tommy) and Alexandra Henrikson (Darja) in Round House Theatre’s current production of Ironbound. Photo by Cheyenne Michael.
Quick summary: Darja, a Polish immigrant, arrives in New Jersey, marries young, gets pregnant, and is left by (alternate version: declines to accompany) her husband Maks when he sets off on his starry-eyed quest to become Chicago’s next great blues musician. Now with a child, Darja tries a second marriage, hoping for material security, but instead encounters domestic abuse. She gets out, barely saving herself and her son, but loses her job when the factory closes and (her son meanwhile having left for Chicago to seek his natural father) hits rock bottom beneath a bus stop bench, when an unlikely character bails her out. All of this happens in the past – specifically, 1992 and 2006.
Meanwhile, in the present (we’re jumping back and forth, you see), Tommy, her housemate and sporadic suitor, resolves to abandon his serial womanizing ways and, astonishingly, asks Darja to be his wife. Momentarily flummoxed, Darja doggedly negotiates the conditions (think a pre-nup on the fly), briefly yearns for the long-gone Maks, then finally decides to throw in her lot with Tommy as husband #3.
That’s about all you need to know.
Josiah Bania (Maks) and Alexandra Henrikson (Darja) in Round House Theatre’s current production of Ironbound. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels,
The play is really about Darja (Alexandra Henrikson), who is on stage every one of the ninety minutes of the show (no intermission).
She has tools – energy, stubbornness, and the will to survive – but they’re limited. She never aims very high, though she clings tenaciously to the little she has, and seems incredibly incapable of accepting unexpected kindnesses.
It makes you wonder what kind of hand she was dealt back in Poland, before (as she puts it) the Wall came down and America fell in. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t offer us much, except a wordless scene in which she lights a votive candle, makes the sign of the cross and says a silent prayer – the echo of a long-gone Catholic past.
In her new life, she has opted for classic American rugged individualism, of the grim, gritted-teeth variety.
But – fair question, in this year of intense, often obtuse, debate about immigration – to what extent does Darja’s story represent the immigrant experience?
For instance, what does the play have to say about immigrants who, like Darya, lost jobs that, crummy as they were, represented their only hope for sufficiency, but, unlike Darja, fell back on family, church, and neighborhood to pull through? Practically nothing.
Jefferson A. Russell (Tommy) and Alexandra Henrikson (Darja) in Round House Theatre’s current production of Ironbound. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Maybe it never intended to. Theater tends to live on the margins, because the margins are dramatic. Darja’s story is marginal and relentlessly dramatic; most immigrants’ stories probably are not.
Imagine a house full of multiple generations, the grandparents nattering on in the native tongue, the kids yearning to be someplace else, but dutifully sticking to the routine of school, church, and possibly even chores, while the middle generation struggles to hold it all together. It’s not the kind of story that today’s theater is equipped to handle.
Blame it, if you will, on the Angry Young Men, who took English theater by storm in the late 1950’s, turning the household into an angry place where people get on each other relentlessly, and set the tone for much of what has passed as domestic drama ever since.
In Ironbound, thankfully, all the yelling takes place at an isolated bus stop where the freeway traffic rumbles overhead, no one hears or cares about the shouting, and everyone moves on – except for Darja. She always seems to show up at this godforsaken place, trying to eke out an existence from whatever post-industrial New Jersey has to offer.
See Ironbound for the acting, the amazing set, and more, but consider the possibility that, given the same hand, not everybody plays their cards this way.
Getting there (as always, by public transit): On Sunday, from Takoma Metro, two possibilities:
1. Red Line north (Silver Spring or Glenmont), get off at Silver Spring; catch the J2 (Montgomery Mall) on Wayne Ave; get off at the theater (4545 East-West Highway); total time: 26 minutes. Return trip: catch the J2 (Silver Spring) on Montgomery Ave. (one block south of East-West Highway); get off at Silver Spring (Wayne Ave.); take Metro Red Line south to Takoma (32 minutes).
2. Red Line south (Grosvenor or Shady Grove); get off at Bethesda; three minutes’ walk to the theater; return trip: the same, in reverse, to Takoma Metro (36 minutes each way).
By Martyna Majok; directed by Daniella Topol; scenic designer, James Kronzer; lighting designers, Brian MacDevitt and Andrew Cissna; costume designer, Kathleen Geldard; sound designer, Eric Shimelonis. At Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. September 9 – October 4. Tue-Thu: 7:30 pm; Fri: 8 pm; Sat: 2 & 8 pm; Sun: 2 pm. Running time: 1 hr 30 min (no intermission).
Cast: Josiah Bania (Maks), Alexandra Henrikson (Darja), Jefferson Russell (Tommy), William Vaughan (Vic)