By Kimberly Rau
“The bus is always late,” complains Darja, but her frustrations aren’t really about the bus being late (and sometimes not arriving at all). Instead, Darja, a Polish immigrant, unleashes her angst at her missing American Dream, the jobs that never last and the men who consistently disappoint. The only thing more constant than her anger at the bus is hardship.
Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” is a story partially inspired by her mother’s experiences and focuses on Darja, a hardworking woman struggling to make it in New Jersey. She works in a factory. She cleans houses. She waits for buses that don’t arrive. As she struggles to settle in New Jersey, she finds herself settling for one lousy man after another.
The play bounces between current-day and more than two decades prior, in literally the same place. The secondary characters come and go, but Darja is always at the same bus stop, the same blank grey concrete wall serving as a backdrop for everything that is to come and commentary on everything that has already happened. It is unremarkable, except that when it’s happening to you, it is everything. It is unchanging. At first, Darja desperately wants to stay in New Jersey, allowing her first husband to travel to Chicago without her. Later, she is unable to leave. It’s only when Darja lowers her expectations that she can grab hold of some happiness.
Directed by Rachel Walshe, this is a play about acceptance and perseverance, and about finding the small, poignant moments that keep us pressing forward, even when we know there are more obstacles ahead. It’s a play full of subtext, and Walshe’s subtle directorial choices along with her all-star cast allow us to feel all of them.
Donnla Hughes plays Darja with exceptional mastery. When we first see her, she is in her early 40s, having it out with her longtime partner, Tommy, who can’t seem to stop having affairs. Her movements are sharp; her words are equally cutting. This is a woman who has seen life and has had enough bullshit. In the next scene, she is 20, newly married, newly pregnant, talking gently to her equally naïve husband who has dreams of being Chicago’s first Polish blues singer. This is a woman who wants to believe in her future. Her movements are more fluid. Her words are more careful. Somewhere in the middle of the show, we’ll see her in her mid-thirties, literally beaten down and warily accepting kindness from an unlikely source (Vic, played by the charismatic Rodney Witherspoon, a naive boy who turns out to be the most selfless person we see Darja interact with). Hughes’ performance throughout is nothing short of amazing.
Though this is Darja’s show, Ironbound does not skimp on character development for those in her universe. Steve Kidd creates a surprisingly likable-in-spite-of-his-philandering Tommy. When Darja turns on him, eviscerating him with her words, you can’t help but feel a little bad for him (almost). Gunnar Manchester plays Maks, Darja’s first love: a man-child who fathers her son Alex. Manchester, as always, is excellent.
This is not a play about happy endings or sad endings, but rather a spotlight on the human experience. Despite everything, Darja’s will is never broken. Life can be wonderful; life can be excruciatingly hard. We press on despite, or because of, the things that challenge us most. This play harnesses that feeling and presents it in a witty, intellectual, gritty manner that will speak to you wherever you are, wherever you’ve been, wherever you’re going.
Ironbound runs through April 10 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401-723-4266. Masks must be worn throughout the show and proof of vaccination or negative Covid test is required.