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“Ironbound”: A Gritty Immigrant Woman’s Survival Story

Eric A. Gordon: Like many immigrants—and really like lots of non-immigrants in the workforce—Darja has been forced to sacrifice the poetry of life in order to guarantee her pragmatic economic security.

In the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Ironbound, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, Marin Ireland reprises the lead role of Darja, a 40-something Polish immigrant to northern New Jersey’s now almost completely evacuated industrial zone. In a taut 80 minutes that has her character on stage the entire time, we see (in a nonlinear succession of scenes) how her life has evolved over a twenty-plus year period, from the early 1990s to more or less the present.


It was a bleak life working dead-end factory jobs, yet it was also tragic seeing those factories close their doors, the jobs moving offshore. Now Darja is reduced to cleaning houses of the well-off, but her resentment gets the better of her, and in time that dries up, too. Two marriages failed and now she has a shot at a third. Whatever illusions she had—I guess the politically correct word to say is “dreams”—they have dissolved to grime. She appears as someone on the verge of becoming one more piece of capitalism’s human garbage, a castoff with no sunny daybreak tomorrow.

What does Majok’s title refer to? Workers being “bound” to soul-killing industrial jobs? Or is Darja “bound” to her own hard-tempered iron will that sometimes prevents her from making better choices in life? The playwright freely admits that she based the character on her own mother, who brought her from Poland to Jersey when she was a young girl.

Like many immigrants—and really like lots of non-immigrants in the workforce—Darja has been forced to sacrifice the poetry of life in order to guarantee her pragmatic economic security.

In an interview published in the playbill, the author says, “We’re always making the best decision we think we can make in the moment. We only find out later how that decision works out. I wanted to show the different sides of this one particular woman’s life and spirit. She has agency over her choices and she definitely fucks shit up a few times [words restored to their unbowdlerized intent], but there are also circumstances that strongly affect her that are just beyond her control.”

Like many immigrants—and really like lots of non-immigrants in the workforce—Darja has been forced to sacrifice the poetry of life in order to guarantee her pragmatic economic security. The time is gone to think about music and culture; now it’s just the nuts and bolts, the bread and butter of stubborn survival. Even a proposal of marriage must be calculated on the scale of monetary reward. What protections will a husband offer? Is health care included? What’s the percentage in it? What’s the return?

Now, let’s take health care for a minute. I once asked a couple I was marrying as a deputy commissioner of civil marriages, how long they’d been together. “Fourteen years,” the man answered. “Oh,” I said, “so today isn’t all about the butterflies and flowers.” “No,” he responded, “we’ve had the butterflies and flowers for fourteen years. Today is about the health care.”

I don’t know of a single other advanced society where your health care depends on being married or not—or for that matter, on how good your employer’s plan is, and how religious he is! If Darja emigrated from Poland around 1990, with her handsome, music-loving husband Maks (Josiah Bania) and young son Aleks, well, they grew up in a (socialist) country that presumably offered decent health care for everyone. In America Darja’s bargain is simple: Submit to a loveless marriage, to physical spousal abuse, to infidelity, to a dangerous job without reward or future, if she wants to see a doctor or send Aleks to one.

“I wonder sometimes about what my life might have been life,” Martyna Majok muses in the playbill, “had I never left Poland. I wonder about who this other version of myself would’ve been had I stayed.” But she was brought here as a child. “I hope it’ll turn out to be worth it—that I make something of value, something even a fraction worth the sacrifices of my family and the time lost.”

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And I wonder if Ironbound might have informed us what the motivation was for Darja and Maks leaving Poland to come to America. What circumstances, if any, pushed them out? Or were they drawn to the greater opportunities they imagined here?

The entire play takes place at an isolated bus stop a quarter of a mile from the factory in Elizabeth, N.J., where Darja used to work—actually where the factory used to be. There’s not much on stage—a battered bench and a street light hunched against a tall cinder-block wall with a steel guard rail that divides the street from the noisy freeway beyond. You can breathe the years of highway soot accumulated at the weedy base of the wall.

Here Darya confronts her present lover Tommy (Christian Camargo), a postal worker with a fairly secure career despite cutbacks in the post office ascribed to the new Internet influence. He’s a vulgar skirt-chaser, which Darja knows all about from checking his cell phone. The painful honesty of their relationship shows just how the misplaced priorities in our society have thwarted the usual gestures of humankindness.

The fourth character in the play, who appears in only one scene, is Vic (Marcel Spears), a young Black teenager who behaves generously and selflessly toward Darja. Although there is a dark, wry, caustic humor sprinkled throughout the play, Vic’s role is openly comic, though at the same time we realize how conflicted his life is, too.

Of the New York production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times said, “Marin Ireland gives a performance of beautiful complexity.” (Among her many other credits, she was recently seen in the Lifetime movie Flint, about the Flint water crisis, playing activist Melissa Mays.) I would have to agree, and add that there is much subtle chiaroscuro to the other three characters as well, with layers and angles that create fully dimensional portraits of lives in constantly shifting motion and light.

The scenic design is by Tim Mackabee, with costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward. The lighting designer is Lap Chi Chu, and the sound designer is Leon Rothenberg.

Martyna Majok is an up-and-coming playwright whose work has already been seen at numerous theaters around the country. Ironbound had its world premiere at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival in September 2015. This script was awarded the National New Play Network Smith Prize and the David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize. Her immigrant voice is deeply appreciated in Southern California.

Ironbound is performed Tues. through Fri. at 8:00 pm, Sat. at 3:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sun. at 2:00 and 7:00 pm, closing on Sun., March 4. Talk Back Tuesdays give theatergoers a chance for a deeper conversation to discuss plot, character themes and other questions directly with the artists in a post-show Q&A from the stage, on Feb. 13, 20 and 27. The Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles 90024. Tickets and other information are available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at (310) 208-5454 or online.

Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public 30 minutes before showtime at the box office—$35 for general admission and $10 for students.


Eric A. Gordon
People's World