At what point in life must you be willing to sacrifice happiness for survival? Ironbound, a play by Martyna Majok currently in its west coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, tells the story of Darja (Marin Ireland), a Polish immigrant struggling to build a life for herself in New Jersey. Whether it is actually Darja’s story or the story of a woman’s life being dictated by the men she surrounds herself with is another question, and the answer is a bit troubling.
Ironbound is told in a series of non-linear scenes that all share the same setting—a bus stop near a factory in Elizabeth, NJ. We see Darja at three points throughout her life—in 1992, at age 20, in 2006, at age 34, and in 2014, at age 42. Darja speaks in broken English that seems self-taught, although her speech patterns evolve depending on when the scene takes place. She tries to make ends meet by cleaning houses, and, for a time, working in the nearby factory, which shuts down at some point between 1992 and 2006 due to the changing economy. Darja at 42 has only one concern— the wellbeing of her 22-year-old son, who has run away, taking her car with him. As snapshots of her life slowly paint a picture of how she came to be where she is, and why her relationship with her son is so tumultuous, we meet three men who have affected Darja’s life, whether for years or just for a few minutes.
The first is Tommy (Christian Camargo), a postal worker who has been 42-year-old Darja’s live-in boyfriend for nearly seven years. He’s more than a bit of a schmuck and a serial cheater, but he has a steady job, and is able to help pay the rent. Then there’s Maks (Josiah Bania), a fellow immigrant and 20-year-old Darja’s first love. His head is perpetually in the clouds and he dreams of leaving New Jersey for Chicago to pursue a music career, which does not seem smart or realistic to Darja, especially once she gets pregnant. The third is Vic (Marcel Spears), a high school-aged prostitute whom Darja encounters at a particularly low moment when she is 34. Their interaction is brief but memorable, illuminating Darja’s frustrations with class and wealth in the United States.
Director Tyne Rafaeli does a great job at differentiating the time periods, a common pitfall for many plays that attempt it. This timeline is clear and never hard to follow, thanks to subtle lines of dialogue and small shifts in hair and wardrobe. One great indicator is the evolution of the cell phones used in 2004 versus 2016, with flip phones making way for iPhones. Ireland is giving a fine performance, particularly in drawing a contrast between Darja at different stages of life and levels of optimism. Darja is just trying to get from one day to the next. She’s pragmatic and determined, yet stagnant. She makes similar mistakes again and again, nearly all of them involving the men she chooses to associate with.
At no point in the story does Darja seem to consider a means of survival that does not involve finding a man to depend on. She even at one point self-sabotages her job in a seemingly unnecessary way, putting herself in an even more desperate situation. Perhaps this is a harsh interpretation. Darja goes through a lot, and certain events, such as most factory work in the United States being outsourced to foreign markets, are beyond her control. She stubbornly refuses money from a stranger as a point of pride, and yet is willing to set her dignity aside when it comes to her relationships. It seems the intended point may be that in this country, both women and immigrants are at an often unsurmountable disadvantage, which is absolutely true. While this view may be sobering, it feels extremely pessimistic now, in 2018, when so many are standing up for women’s rights and immigrant rights.
Even one life decision not dictated by one of her boyfriends turned husbands would have helped me to see Darja in a more active light, but she is just remarkably passive throughout. Terrible things happen to her and she reacts by gravitating towards another man who does not respect her and mistreats her, and it is very frustrating to watch. She repeatedly accepts relationships that fall at different points on the spectrum of abuse because it is the way she knows how to get by. Her reactionary nature might not seem as problematic if we ever saw her with another woman in her life, but the only other females in her story, a friend at the factory and an employer whose house she cleans, are merely mentioned and never seen. The idea of an immigrant woman trying to get by in a changing world and economy over a period of 22 years is compelling and important, but the frustrating nature of Darja’s character combined with the narrative choice to surround her only by distasteful men prevents any larger point from being made.
Ironbound runs through March 4th at the Geffen Playhouse. The running time is 80 minutes, no intermission. Tickets range from $25-$90 ($25 for college students) and can be purchased here.