Anne Mundell’s set for City Theatre’s production of Ironbound (a new play by Martyna Majok) consists of a tall, rusting steel bridge support set atop a graffiti-covered concrete base and surrounded by mounds of detritus and trash. This monumental girder, which looms over the desolate New Jersey bus stop where all of the action of the play takes place, writes the economic and infrastructural woes of the Rust Belt in visual shorthand, creating both a fitting metaphor and a suitably bleak setting for its protagonist Darja’s own disintegrating social and economic situation.
For Darja (Rebecca Harris), this dreary, blighted spot is a place of refuge: she returns to this underpass again and again in moments of crisis and indecision. Like her, it’s seen better days (it once was the bus stop for a thriving factory), and like her, it sits overlooked at the margins. Lit in a murky and muted gloom by Andrew David Ostrowski, the eloquent scene design hems the character in, overshadowing her with the louring desolation of poverty.
Majok’s play hopscotches through time as it stitches together the tattered quilt that is Darja’s life as a Polish immigrant in the United States. In the opening scene, we find her at a crossroads in her current relationship with her live-in boyfriend Tommy (Rod Brogan), a postal worker who has been sleeping with the rich Montclair lady whose house Darja cleans. A subsequent scene finds her at the same bus stop, but two decades earlier, shortly after her immigration to New Jersey, waiting with her Polish husband, Maks (JD Taylor), for a bus home from the factory where both eke out a living. Maks wants a piece of the American dream: he aspires to become a blues musician and seeks to convince a reluctant Darja to move with him to Chicago to pursue that dream. And in a third moment in time, she’s just left her abusive second husband and is briefly befriended by Vic (Erik Martin), a suburban high school student who styles himself as a hiphop gangsta and deals weed to curry favor with his buddies.
The threads of anxiety that connect all these moments are twofold. To begin with, there’s economic insecurity – represented by the factory, just down the road from the bus stop, that once provided stable employment for Darja, Maks, and Darja’s second husband, and which now sits shuttered and abandoned, a rebuke to working class dreams of upward mobility. Connected to that economic insecurity is the fate of her son, Alex, whom we never see but who is the focus of her near-constant worry and care. Like the rusted tower of steel that backgrounds the action, Alex – who has disappeared with her car before the action begins, and who, we infer, has either mental health issues, a drug abuse problem, or some combination of the two – looms large in her mental landscape, a part of the infrastructure of her life that is also, and equally, beyond repair.
Darja struggles to articulate these thoughts and feelings, however, and is often reduced to simplifying what are clearly roiling emotions because of her incomplete command of English. Harris is superb as Darja, masterfully conveying the complexity and frustration of a character who has way more going on inside than she can properly express. Darja is something of a closed book, and while cultural difference surely has something to do with that, in Harris’s hands Darja’s inarticulateness functions as both an impediment and a shield – it both keeps her from opening out to others and protects her from the consequences of intimacy. At the same time, life experience has made Darja wary and defensive: the steady devaluing of her labor has brought her to conceive all of her relationships in purely transactional terms, so that, by the end of the play, any feelings and emotions she might have for Tommy take a backseat to the material gain she can extract from him.
Tracy Brigden has directed the first-rate cast with a keen eye for character detail. Both Harris and Taylor – who is charming and sly as Maks – observe with studied precision the physicality of the EFL speaker: they are tense, tight, and forced when speaking English, and loose, relaxed, and free when they allow themselves to slip into Polish (Don Wadsworth provided the dialect coaching for the convincing accents). Rod Brogan is mulish but sympathetic as the philandering boyfriend Tommy, and Erik Martin is delightfully funny and surprisingly sweet as the wannabe badboy Vic.
An insert in the program advertising “World Refugee Day Pittsburgh” suggests that City Theatre wants to lean in to the play’s depiction of the immigrant experience, and certainly playwright Martyna Majok gives us opportunity and incentive to empathize with Darja and Maks’s struggle to master the English language, find employment in a shrinking job market, and chase that elusive dream of American-style success. But strip away the Polish accent, and Darja’s story could be that of any woman struggling to survive as a single mother in an economic system that puts so little value on people. With all the handwringing in the last election over the anxieties and frustrations expressed by white working class men, Majok’s play (which was first commissioned in 2013) affords a sympathetic look into the precarious lives of those working class women who labor, seemingly invisibly, in the background of our economy.