Ironbound at The Kitchen Theatre Company
Ithaca’s professional, intimate, “black box” theater company has opened their latest offering, Ironbound. This is the third play of the season and continues Artistic Director M Bevin O’Gara’s vision of presenting plays with a social consciousness. The focus is on a central character, a female Polish immigrant. It’s a glimpse of a particular American experience unknown to many of us, one we haven’t considered. The presentation of this play at this time in our collective history, when there is a national spotlight on immigration, could not be timelier.
The intimate theater holds 99 seats on risers that surround the stage on the floor on 3 sides. Upon arrival in the space the audience can see the settings. I appreciate this as it sets a mood and gives one a chance to take it in. In this case it’s a simple set – a bus stop. But there are lots of details. From foreground to back we see the asphalt street, a curb of cut stone, concrete sidewalk, bus stop seat with roof, discarded tires, chain link fence, brick outer wall of a factory. There are weeds coming through cracks, leaves and trash in the gutter, vines in the fence. It’s very realistic and a bit bleak.
Author Martyna Majok draws heavily from her own experience. In an interview she tells that the main character, Darja (pronounced Daria), is a combination of her mother and herself – the former in terms of the situation, the latter her personality. Majok, after immigrating from Poland, grew up partly in Kearny, New Jersey, a working-class town of factories, concrete, brick and chain link fence that are depicted so well in the set. It’s a rough place, and Majok is adept at portraying it.
The play is set in Elizabeth, NJ, which is on the other side of Newark from Kearny, and similar. It’s that horrible corridor of NJ seen from the Turnpike that gives NJ it’s bad reputation. The story background finds Darja with two ex-husbands, a son who she fiercely wants to protect, and a current boyfriend, Tommy, of six years that she shares an apartment with. Upon arriving in the US at age 20 with her first love, Maks, speaking no English, she makes a meager living cleaning houses and then working at the factory behind the fence. A son is born, Maks leaves, she marries an abusive man (unnamed), leaves him and is now with Tommy.
Out of the block, preceded by a short, intense rock music intro, we are plopped into the middle of a fight between Darja and Tommy, played by Kate MacCluggage and Austin Jones respectively. There’s lots of yelling and profanity but we don’t really know what the issue is until later. Majok brings it out over the course of the scene – good drama that hits you over the head from the get go. Darja has gotten off work as a house cleaner and is at the bus stop. Tommy, a postal worker, drives up to give her a lift home, but Darja is angry because she has discovered that Tommy has been and is fooling around on the side and refuses his apologies and ride offer. What the scene is really about is Darja’s lack of power. She has no money and is dependent, though she is very tough and defiant while having few options. She’s trying to decide whether to give in to her pride for the sake of survival – a tough spot that is explored for this entire, emotionally intense scene.
The next scene is back in time to shortly after Darja’s arrival in the US with Maks, a blues musician set on going to Chicago, home of the blues. You may be wondering how an immigrant from Poland could be a blues musician. An article in the audience guide provides the answer. American jazz introduced to Poland in the late 1950s by a US cultural diplomacy initiative exploded with popularity there and became a symbol, along with blues and other popular musical forms, for democracy and musical freedom.
In this scene Darja struggles with the yearning to have a comfortable life. She is envious of the women she works for and has even stolen a beautiful slip, justifying the act by explaining to the disapproving Maks that her employer would never miss it. This is a nice glance at an aspect of being poor, wanting more, and being willing to engage in dubious behaviors to get it.
The fourth and final character we meet is teenage Vic, played by Adrian Abel Amador, a rich, gay kid that hustles sex with men more for fun than money. It’s very late at night and Vic finds Darja sleeping on the ground behind the bench at the bus stop. She has been physically abused by the unnamed husband and, to escape him without any good options, is on the street. Vic feels for her and offers her cash for a room. But once again Darja’s pride keeps her from accepting.
Playwright Majok has a gift for dialog. Gritty and natural, full of irony and pith. The actors brought this script to life beautifully – excellent all, and three of them have Ithaca College connections: Austin Jones (Tommy) is assistant professor of acting, Marcin Mesa (Maks and of Polish heritage), is a graduate of IC, and Adrian Abel Amador (Vic) is currently a sophomore there.
Kate MacCluggage is a New York City/LA based actor with a long resume both on stage and screen. She is very convincing in the role of Darja which she has previously performed. Her accent is impressive which could be in part from dialect coach Lizzie King-Hall. MacCluggage brings all the elements together – strong, defiant, unhappily resigned yet with a glimmer of a better future.
Bevin O’Gara is The Kitchen’s Artistic Director and directs Ironbound. This is her second show as director at The Kitchen and does so admirably. It is obvious that she has a strong sense of drama, balance and timing. I look forward to seeing more of her work.
All technical work was very well integrated and expertly executed. David Arsenault, an Ithaca College alum as well, is responsible for both the set and lighting. The setting was spot on and lighting quite effective. I especially liked the lighting effect of cars going by – well done!
The excellent sound design is by The Kitchen’s associate producing director, Lesley Greene. It incorporates intense metal rock and blues. The sharp edges of the musical choices reflect the grittiness of the scene perfectly. Costume design is by Lisa Boquist . The Props Designer is Megan Parker. Ithaca musician Nate Marshall is the musical coach for Maks’s few musical outbursts on blues harp and singing. The assistant director is Zoë Golub-Sass, the assistant stage manager is Loren Roth, and the production stage manager is Jennifer Schilansky. Brendan Komala provides technical direction.
Ironbound runs January 21 – February 4, 2018. The Kitchen Theatre Company is at 417 W. State/MLK, Jr. St. Ithaca, NY 14850. For tickets contact The Kitchen online at kitchentheatre.org/tickets.html
By phone at (607) 272-0570. In person Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM-6:00 PM at the Kitchen offices (409 W. State St.) and Saturday-Sunday, 12:00-4:00 PM at the theater (417 W. State St.)