Darja, an immigrant from Poland who calls the industrial wastelands of New Jersey home, can regularly be found waiting for a bus near the factory where, until it was shut down, she was employed.
Chances are you’ve brushed by her at a convenience store or pharmacy and not taken notice. Pallid and careworn, this woman is easy to overlook.
But as played by Marin Ireland, Darja, the protagonist of Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound,” which opened on Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, will not soon be forgotten. Reprising her touted off-Broadway performance, the actress creates a scrupulously honest portrait in a palette of grays.
To call Darja disillusioned would make her sound cheerier than she is. Disappointment has turned the character’s inner weather into a wintry mix.
But look closely at the twice-divorced 42-year-old mother, and you’ll see traces of another being, glimpses of an alternative life not worn out by poverty, abusive men, a son grappling with addiction and public transportation that never seems to come.
The location of “Ironbound” doesn’t change. The bus stop, with its uninviting bench and noisy streetlight set against a cinder-block backdrop (the work of scenic designer Tim Mackabee), is always in view in a production that stands in stark contrast to the myriad contemporary plays kicking back in plush domestic surroundings.
But the drama, which begins in 2014 with Darja arguing with Tommy (Christian Camargo), the postal worker Lothario who has once again been caught cheating on her, jumps around in time. Tyne Rafaeli’s staging doesn’t always sort out the play’s irregular rhythms and fuzzy writing, but Darja’s story still manages to come into sharp focus.
After the opening scene, “Ironbound” travels back to 1992, when Darja, a newly arrived immigrant with her handsome husband, Maks (Josiah Bania), still has hope of cracking the code of this mysteriously withholding land of opportunity. A pit stop in 2006 brings us to a moment when Darja’s strength is mercilessly tested. Happy surprises are few and far between. When someone treats Darja with kindness (a rare occurrence), she wants to know what mean trick they have in store for her.
Love and work, the double track for a contented life, are a series of escalating compromises for Darja. Cleaning houses, once a supplemental sideline, has become her main gig after the factory closes. The constant fear of an assembly line accident has been overtaken by new worries. The loss of health insurance is perhaps the most troubling. Darja’s son has stolen her car, and she knows the only hope for him is expensive rehab.
“Why do you think we look poor?” Darja asks Maks in their early flashback scene. She doesn’t understand why when she wears the fancy clothes of the old woman she cleans for, people on the street still look as if they know she’s a lowly immigrant wrapped in a borrowed (or possibly stolen) scarf.
Maks dreams of making it big as a blues musician in Chicago, but Darja is simply grateful for steady employment. “I work in factory. That’s it what I do. And I clean old woman,” she explains in the broken English she’s determined to improve.
Money is what she wants, because without money there is no security. But Maks cannot accept an economy that requires his soul as a down payment. “Ironbound” will have many thinking harder about the trade-offs of contemporary capitalism, with its fixation on monetary costs at the expense of those values that actually make life worth living.
In the play’s opening scene, Darja tries to negotiate a deal with two-timing Tommy. She’ll accept him back if he pays her $3,000. “I need figures. Numbers. Money,” she tells him. “You are not my great love, OK?” Years of scratching out a subsistence living have taught her to put a price tag on everything, even intimacy.
Darja’s encounter with a teenager who takes pity on her after he finds her in battered condition sleeping under the bench at the bus stop expands the sociological picture. That Vic (Marcel Spears), a streetwise high school student, is able to offer her money for a hotel to escape her violent second husband only intensifies her gloom. His generosity moves her, but rescue from a troubled kid only confirms her position on the bottom rung.
Darja’s situation is excruciating bleak. (The drama rivals the unrelievedly grim but incontestable realism of one of those great contemporary Romanian films that ought to be seen with a mental health care professional.) Majok works in some variety through the eccentricity of her male characters (all of whom are portrayed with rambunctious theatricality), but the humor does little to lighten Darja’s mood.
Tommy, a heel with a conscience, is played by Camargo with rubbery body language. He’s like a semirehabilitated Jim Carrey antihero with a New Jersey accent so thick it could make the Sopranos sound like New Englanders by comparison.
Maks is a moony young man who would rather jam on his harmonica than worry about the pile of bills obsessing Darja. His youthful dreams, however farfetched, are what sustain him in this forbidding new land. Bania gives equal weight to the character’s flightiness and integrity.
The scene with Vic, whose identity is intentionally confusing, is somewhat complicated by the casting of Spears. (He’s not the “frail” presence called for by the script.) But the character’s bull-in-a-china-shop friendliness adds a fresh charge to a play that is threatening to become suffocatingly glum.
There are two main reasons to see “Ironbound.” First and foremost is Ireland’s nuanced handling of a figure traditionally relegated to the margins of American drama — and society.
Darja is hardly the most pleasant or charming of characters, but she is piercingly human. Ireland, who’s able to slough off years from her character’s age by simply turning her head, reveals all that has been lost over time in a portrait that connects history with psychology and fate with brute economic facts.
The other important reason to see the play is for the way it illuminates the American experience through the immigrant’s journey. At a moment when the issue of immigration is being used as a political football, it’s easy for some to distance themselves emotionally from the debate.
But by holding us to the fire of Darja’s story, “Ironbound” forces us to recognize the bitter reality of a system that renders invisible those hard-working casualties of the American dream.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends March 4
Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes