Denton — Friday evening the Artists Enclave of Denton County presented the regional premiere of Iron to a sold-out audience. The one-weekend-only production is notable for being one of the rare instances of a Denton theater production using an Actor’s Equity Association contract and paying all performers. Written by Scottish playwright Rona Munro, the four-person drama tries to navigate the rough terrain between a mother and daughter. This mother, though, has more in common with Medea or Dolores Claiborne than with the Virgin Mary.
Iron, which is reportedly asks what it means to be a mother, and reflects on the struggle of a mother’s relationship with her adult daughter through the fractured themes of memory, love, and trauma. Set in a women’s prison in contemporary Scotland, the play won the 2003 John Whiting Award.
Director Mandy Rausch’s dynamic staging helps with the pacing of the wordy, elliptical script. The physical action of much of the play is, by necessity, constricted and restrained. Having the two prison guards stationed as sentinels in an ever-rotating pattern helps set the proper tone during the mother-daughter encounters.
Susan Carol Davis plays Fay, a woman who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her husband. When the play begins, she has already served 15 years. In that time, she has transformed from the gregarious young wife and mother she was before her crime, and into a caged animal. Davis is a master at embodying the nervous and haggard physicality of the role. Her animal-like mannerisms evoke the cost of Fay’s crime without appearing overplayed.
Sienna Riehle is Fay’s daughter Josie, who has tracked down her mother in order to piece her life back together. She’s haunted by the fact that she has no substantial memories before her 11th birthday. Despite having traveled abroad and scaling the corporate ladder, her life doesn’t seem all that different from her jailed mother’s. Her business attire even mirrors her mother’s prison uniform (costume design is not credited; but Xander Stubbs is listed as designer/technical director). Riehle subtly communicates the changes that Josie undergoes.
Amanda Carson Green skillfully fills the role of prison guard Sheila, who comes burdened with her own mommy issues. At one point over the past five years, she has served as Fay’s surrogate daughter. As her co-worker George acknowledges, professional boundaries were blurred. Sheila is awash in contradictions and inner conflicts, and Green makes her believably sympathetic.
George, another prison guard, is played by Dunashay Thomas. He is the play’s only male character. Though his command of the Scottish accent is less precise than that of his castmates, Thomas brings an interesting dynamic to the drama as the older, wiser, and world-weary guard. In Act II he waxes poetic on the virtues of women’s prisons over men’s prisons (they smell of soap and lotions instead of unflushed toilets), and he offers insight into how the court values human life depending on the gender of the murderer and the victim.
The guards seem to see all sides of the evolving relationship between Fay and Josie, and their surveillance, with the creative lighting design by Xander Stubbs, incriminates the audience as well. The stage lights mark out the audience in their dual roles as both the watchers and the watched. Nowhere is this duality more damning than in the invasive body searches both mother and daughter endure.
There is a lot to like about Stubbs’ bleak, monochromatic set design. The prison cot that defines the space of Fay’s cell sets the perfect tone for the emotional claustrophobia that plays out on stage. The card table where mother and daughter reacquaint themselves with each other, however, reads as less institutional than required. The theater’s bare, charcoal-gray cinder-block wall serves as the ideal backdrop.
According to an interview with the Guardian in 2009, Munro considers herself “a woman writer, a feminist writer, and a Scottish writer.” She continued, “I hope all those things inform the writing rather than define it.” And the feminism in her work has been called “quiet but pervasive.” Munro’s writing is nuanced, and it contains streaks of the blackest of humors.
It’s a promising theater debut for Artists Enclave.