If specificity of experience is a thing to which the ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival hopes to open the (stage) door, then Ironbound is rousing affirmation that the idea is a fine one. Martyna Majok’s rough-throated, 90-minute immigrant story is both deeply anchored in its particular place and unmistakably informed by a hard-lived understanding of struggle. Inflected by the playwright’s own background as the as the immigrant daughter of a Polish mother scraping along in urban-industrial New Jersey, Majok’s study of hard times and harder choices feels urgent and authentic, the rhythms of its broken English less imagined than channeled and distilled. It’s a potently contemporary lament, and one very much keyed to this writer’s singular voice.
When we meet 42-year-old housekeeper Darja (Alexandra Henrikson), she’s waiting stubbornly at a grim bus stop in the shadow of some looming Elizabeth-area overpass, having caught her mail-carrier boyfriend Tommy (Jefferson A. Russell) in an affair with one of the rich Montclair women whose homes she cleans. He’s a heel—never mind that he’s turned up to make peace and offer her a ride to work—and she’s a take-no-bullshit blue-collar heroine, right? Sure, but not so fast. Majok will unwind their backstory, with flashbacks introducing Darja’s wide-eyed dreamer of a first husband (Josiah Bania’s Maks; like Darja, a Bush Sr.–era transplant from Poland), and then the impact of a second marriage that, though it would ultimately prove abusive, seemed initially to offer shelter after Maks left his wife and unborn son to chase the blues in Chicago. Along the way, actress and playwright will offer subtler, darker glimpses into the psyche of a decidedly complicated character.
This is a woman whose approach to relationships leans toward practical, Old World, and calculated; whose choices might not be our own; whose motivations can remain puzzling even after plot twists shed more light on them. As she negotiates her way back toward domestic detente with Tommy, edging always toward the larger goal of locating the drug-addict son who’s absconded with her car, Darja reveals herself most tellingly in terms of the compromises she will and won’t make. She can be stubbornly independent about rejecting help even when she plainly could use it, downright pugnacious when it looks to her like good sense or basic decency have suffered violation. She appears willing to barter in ways some might find repugnant when circumstance threatens to keep her from doing right by what she sees as the one thing no hardship can take from her: that son, whether he cares for her solicitude or not.
Darja doesn’t have much in the way of dreams, and she’s not sentimental about how the American experience has or hasn’t lived up to the expectations she and Maks brought with them, once upon a time, from their disenchanted land. She’s got that boy, though, and for him she’s prepared to endure anything.
The bus, as you’ll have suspected, never arrives at Darja’s stop. There’s a jaundiced wink in the direction of Godot there, though Majok’s play is anything but grad-school snotty. Still, the exhausting hope of deliverance and the annihilating uncertainty of when or whether it might come suffuse Ironbound like diesel stink. Ultimately, Darja will seize hold of a choice Didi and Gogo never get around to making. It’s much to Majok’s credit that audiences will probably leave arguing about whether it’s likely to do her any kind of good at all.
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $36–$61. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.