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Photo by Jasmin Simmons

An Assorted Few in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company present, IRONBOUND, by Martyna Majok, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), in the Kings Cross Hotel. August 31st – September 15th

IRONBOUND, is an American play, from a Polish/American writer, Martyna Majok, written in 2016.

Set at a bleak bus stop, In The Ironbound, a suburb of Newark, New Jersey, over the passing of 20 years of time, we meet Darja, a Polish immigrant (economic refugee) seeking subsistence and happiness in the Land of the Brave – in pursuit of the American Dream. The play is told in six scenes that have been shuffled out of chronological order.

Three of them are set in 2014, when 42 year old Darja (Gabrielle Scawthorn), works, cleaning rich people’s houses. The factory where she once worked has closed down. She is trying to come to terms with her present boy-friend, Tommy (Benedict Wall), with whom she lives, who is a sexual ‘lothario’ and has just been caught, for the fourteenth time, having had an outside affair. He says he loves her. This, Darja uses as the negotiating mechanism to survive: marriage, home security, and $3,000 to assist her errant, drug addicted and absent 22 year old son, living in Chicago.

In two other scenes we meet Maks (Abe Mitchell), Darja’s first (Polish) husband, in 1994. She is 20, has a job in a factory and occasionally cleans house. She is working hard at what she knows to create a life. Charismatic Maks with his mouth organ at hand has dreams of being a ‘blues’ musician and wants to move to Chicago. Darja is pregnant and takes surety of work and money over the dreams of Maks.

In one other scene, Darja, black-eyed, fleeing a second (and abusive) husband (who we never meet), encounters a young rich school boy prostitute, Vic (Ryan Morgan), who intuits her desperate circumstances and with an act of kindness forces her to take a gift of $100 to find a Motel for the night – to not sleep at the bus stop. This gift of mercy is difficult for Darja to believe or accept – her world has shrunk to almost hopelessness and suspicion of kindness.

IRONBOUND, is a bleak portrait of a female immigrant experience in the land of opportunity. For those at the bottom-of-the-heap, trying to negotiate a way to just survive with some self respect it is a Sisyphean frustration, impossibility. It is a sad play and a tough reckoning of the Promise of the American Dream.

Alistair Clark, with his Designers, Jeremy Allen (Set), Maya Keys (Costume), Alexander Berlage (Lighting) and Benjamin Freeman (Sound), have a created an arid grey sand and gravel environment, with a gleaming steel bench, lit mostly within the white, cold spectrum of fluorescent. There is no visual warmth or comfort. The Sound is made up of realistic pragmatics or ominous music of import. There is a claustrophobic (though attractive) weight to all the artistic offers.

The performances are good. Gabrielle Scawthorn’s Darja, carries the 90 minute, no-interval experience with great empathy and character flexibility of response that is sometimes soft, sometime aggressive, sometimes hard-nosed fragility, sometimes beguilingly sexy and warmly witty. Although, she is rather too young for the role, and appears so in this close-up, small theatre space – the mother of a 22 year old son? I don’t think so.

Abe Mitchell, as the first husband Maks, is handsomely charismatic and plays the foolishly optimistic dreamer with insight and charm winning the audience’s empathy despite Maks abandonment of his responsibilities. Ryan Morgan gives the young Vic a winning persona and creates a well needed relief to the grimness of the other scene interludes/situations with a wry humour and open generosity. Benedict Wall as Darja’s last hope, Tommy, negotiates the contradicting needs of the character with a sense of flawed humanity ruled by the animal impulses of his sex drive – the dialect work, however, is not very useful for our belief in who he says he is and where he lives, it was, for me, a distraction, an obstacle to be able to completely surrender belief in the character and, so, the play. It was interesting to hear the New Jersey accent in the musical JERSEY BOYS, the following night – authentic consistent sounds that built belief in the characters.

IRONBOUND, is well written and meticulously Designed and Directed with a company of ‘good’ performances – reasons to see the work. Whether the content is fresh enough, arresting enough, to entertain or intrigue you is the baying question. Does it throw a contemporary light onto the plight of our welcomed refugees/immigrants?

Martyna Majok won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize with her new play, COST OF LIVING.

N.B. I am, at present, reading AMERICANAH (2013), a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, concerning the experience of the heroine, Ifemelu, a Nigerian student, in surviving the day to day world of the American Dream, amongst other things.