The premise – a Polish blues musician, a frustrated factory worker, a misunderstood prep student and a blustery Italian mailman meet at a bus stop – sounds like the lead-in to a joke instead of 95 minutes that might change your outlook on life.
Ironbound, a gritty play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Martyna Majok, peeks at 22 years of the life of Darja, a Polish immigrant struggling to make a life in Newark, NJ. The play is running without intermission at the Gamm Theatre.
Set at the litter-strewn bus stop from which Darja periodically seeks emotional refuge, even if she doesn’t need a ride, Ironbound is sparse in many ways. It’s a four-person cast on a set featuring just a telephone pole, metal bench and cement wall. Two actors are on stage at any time, one of whom is always Donnla Hughes as Darja, as the plot pivots between her at ages 42, 22 and 34.
But there is nothing simple or sparse about Majok’s brilliant writing or the insightful direction of Rachel Walshe. This is a play in which almost every line has a message, often delivered like a sucker punch draped in the disordered parlance of a non-native speaker.
“What I can do but try?” Darja asks at one point.
Darja does try. When she and her first husband Max arrive from Poland, she is giddy with optimism and dreams. Max, however, dreams of storming the Chicago blues scene and she watches him leave, unwilling to move again.
Her second husband proves abusive. After a beating, she dozes at the bus stop and encounters a sweet prep school student, Vic. He seems happy enough but she soon sees that his jokes and rapping mask what he calls “a different kind of shitty situation.”
At other points in Ironbound, Darja battles with Tommy, a boyfriend who provides her with relative stability but cheats on her regularly. Afraid to be alone, he clumsily proposes, to her horror.
These are not easy lives. Darja and Max are not immigrant success stories. Tommy isn’t her white knight. Even the help Vic offers is temporary and minimal.
In Walshe’s hands, the show erupts with emotion, and Hughes provides most of it. On stage for the entire show, Hughes is a force who holds tightly to the thin thread of hope that propels her forward and endears Darja to viewers. Hughes explodes with anger at times, her entire body shaking and a fist smacking her chest for emphasis, and her delivery is perfect every single time despite the cadence and stumbles of someone struggling with English. She is, quite simply, amazing.
Supporting her performance are the men in Darja’s life – Gunnar Manchester is a magnetic, harmonica-riffing Max; Steve Kidd makes memorable return to the Gamm stage as the streetwise Tommy; and Rodney Witherspoon II makes an equally memorable debut as Vic.
While Darja is the focus, these actors produce characters that are likable and pitiable. Witherspoon lends Vic a palpable desire for peer approval, mixed with silliness. Kidd’s facial expressions and diction are straight out of a mobster movie.
The immigrant experience, the strength women summon to protect their souls and families, struggles to survive on the economic edge – all these threads feed Ironbound, resulting in an experience sure to resonate with everyone.
Ironbound is on stage through April 10 at the Gamm, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. For more information, go to gammtheatre.org.