MacCluggage brings immigrant struggle to life in Ironbound

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By Sue Henninger

Tompkins Weekly

 

Ironbound, Martyna Majok, Kitchen Theatre Company, through February 4, 272-0570, www.kitchentheatre.org. No intermission.

 

Ironbound, by Martyna Majok, directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, highlights two decades of Darja’s (Kate MacCluggage) immigrant experience in America. Though it’s immediately apparent that she’s a strong, determined survivor, the men in her life often abandon her or set up situations where she is forced to be reactive, rather than proactive. The story opens with Darja and her boyfriend Tommy (Austin Jones) arguing heatedly at a New Jersey bus stop about her recent discovery of his philandering ways.

Darja starts out tough and pragmatic, “I’m not stupid, I’m not blind…I make it easy for your life. I cook. I clean. I lay there and make sounds,” adding that she has weighed him on a scale and would be willing to stay with him in return for financial compensation. “I can’t trust understanding. I can’t trust nice,” she asserts. “I can trust three thousand dollars in my bank account.” The balance of power then shifts as Tommy stops begging for her understanding and begins to whittle away at her self-esteem, reminding her of how limited her options are without him. She gradually decreases the amount of money she’s seeking from him, until there is nothing left, including Tommy, who leaves her for a wealthy, married woman.

In the next scene, Darja is the young woman who has recently come to America with her husband, Maks, played by the engaging Marcin Mesa. The two are joking and playing a simple game while waiting for the bus when Maks wonders aloud how people always seem to know they’re poor and criticizes her for “borrowing” a nightgown from the rich lady she cleans for. This quickly disintegrates into a heated discussion about how they need more money so they can achieve the “American dream” of a home, a car, and a family. Maks, determined to follow his dream of being a blues musician in Chicago, eventually departs on a bus, leaving Darja behind.

A third encounter at the bus stop occurs between Darja and Vic (the dynamic Adrian Abel Amador). Vic, an errant prep school student, discovers Darja sleeping behind the bus bench after being beaten by her current husband. Thrilled to stumble upon a “real” battered woman, he tries desperately to engage her, first with his witty, charming personality, then with offers of a meal at a New Jersey diner, a solo hotel room for the night, or just a roll of cold, hard cash. Darja holds out as long as she can telling Vic, for whom she can see this is all just a grand adventure, not to give her money just so he doesn’t feel so bad for having some. But, ultimately, her need for the bills is stronger than her pride.

The play concludes with more bus stop negotiations between Darja and Tommy, this time about marriage. Bus stops are meant for going someplace new and different. Will the bus finally come for Darja?

The single set, created by Scenic and Lighting Designer, David L. Arsenault, is a typical city bus stop adjacent to a factory. With a scattering of leaves against the curb, uncomfortable metal bench, single fluorescent light, and two abandoned tires on the periphery of the shelter, it’s a place many can identify with. It’s the type of shelter one seeks when they have no other options and nowhere else to go. It’s also a spot Darja has been forced to spend an inordinate amount of time at since coming to the United States from her native Poland.

Sound Designer Lesley L. Greene sets the vibe for Ironbound with a fine selection of New Jersey rockers. Jon Bon Jovi’s “Living on A Prayer” and Bruce (Bruuuce!) Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” were especially effective in reinforcing both the gritty backdrop and Darja and Tommy’s heightened sense of desperation and mutual need at certain junctures in their relationship.

Lisa Boquist has done a fantastic job with the costumes. Tommy looks like the stereotype of a middle-aged man trying to hang on to his image of himself as a handsome heartbreaker. Vic is clad like the urban player he wishes he was but still sports a hidden school tie. Darja’s outfits at various stages of her life emphasize her lean intensity and severe, angular features. Somehow she manages to look both vulnerable and unyielding at the same time.

It’s impossible not to root for the Polish immigrant, even when she seems to be making things harder on herself by refusing to get out of her own way. Through body language, tone, and word choice, MacCluggage manages to create a woman who is simultaneously an exhausted underdog and a feminine warrior. The play takes you on a “deep dive” into Darja’s, psyche, which is frequently so occupied with figuring out how to eke out a hardscrabble existence and meet her daily tangible needs, that she never has the luxury of grappling with more abstract concepts like the meaning of life. “I need it in my hand,” she says, which succinctly sums up her situation.

This play is long on character development and short on plotline. There is plenty of conversation and a plethora of emotion but little forward movement. If increasing your understanding of what it’s like for many who immigrate to America is your goal, Ironbound will be an excellent theatrical choice. Majok’s writing reinforces how overwhelming and terrifying coming to a new country with no safety net or support system in place can be. Darja frequently has no one and nothing she can rely on. Yet, through it all she perseveres, proving Bon Jovi right when he sings, “Hold on, ready or not. You live for the fight when that’s all that you’ve got.”

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