Dallas — Darja (Karen Parrish) is a working-class woman in her 40s who emigrated from Poland 20 years ago, and has been through the mill, literally and figuratively. We first meet her at a grimy bus stop in Elizabeth, N.J., in Martyna Majok’s piercing, unsentimental Ironbound, directed with earthy realism and a sympathetic tenderness by Tina Parker as the season opener for Kitchen Dog Theater. It’s the regional premiere of the play, after the 2016 New York premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and Women's Project Theater.
Darja gets by cleaning houses since the factory closed, and she’s currently in a chin-thrusting shouting match with her mailman boyfriend Tommy (Max Hartman) because he’s screwing the rich woman whose sheets she changes. She’s hurt and pissed, but not crushed. Darja’s been around the bench a few times, and she refuses to get in the car when Tommy stops to persuade her to go back to the apartment.
She doesn’t wring hands, but negotiates Tommy’s multiple infidelities — which she’s documented by cracking his cellphone password — in financial terms. “I want $3,000,” she says in her pithy Polish accent, and the dealing goes on from there. This woman is an American dream survivor. Willful, smart and brimming with sexual energy, she keeps love reined in because she thinks she can’t afford to be romantic.
Majok’s thoughtful and timely play moves from the opening scene in the present to 22 years earlier when Darja’s first husband Maks (darkly handsome Seth Magill), a musician, woos her at the bus stop while the traffic screams and grinds from the overhead freeway, thanks to John M. Flores’ richly ambient sound design. As the time shifts, the characters are always at the same dirty bus stop, perfectly depicted right down to the scrubby grass and wire fence in Clare Floyd DeVries’ gritty set.
Enter a young man with big hair in an orange jump suit, Vic (Doak Rapp), who reveals his own harsh reasons for strolling in the wee hours around a seedy neighborhood. In one of the play’s most telling scenes, Darja throws herself in the arms of this hapless boy, who reminds her of the son with whom she has lost touch. Homeless and on the fence, she says no to Vic’s cash, but keeps a hand out as she turns away.
We all trade in something, Majok tells us.
Parker’s cast delivers an exemplary ensemble performance in this elegantly made play. Parrish is feisty, infuriating, compelling, hard to love, and finally irresistible as a flesh-and-blood, hard-working woman in lockstep with an idea of American value that chooses Blue Cross over any old-country notion of true love and romance.
Hartman is terrific as a sweet Jersey guy, a man with a heart and a sex drive who plays Bruce Springsteen and sings along as he tries to cajole Darja into making a life together. They do generate some hilarious and flaring middle-aged heat in their arguments and snuggles.
Magill is a sexy, fleeting dream of youth, his harmonica evoking wrenching memories for Darja in late scenes. Rapp is a fiery shot of welcome humor and pizazz as a preppie with wild eyes, gorgeous hair and a shockingly tender heart.
This play reminds me of the piss and vinegar of many women I know of another generation who were not immigrants from another country, but who left farms and little towns to test their looks and wit in the big city, where you could work hard and get ahead.
Ironbound is timely in its portrait of blue-collar America, and timeless in its depiction of the conflicts and passionate surges of the human heart.