A Canadian immigrant songwriter named Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse released an album in 1969 that included the song, “Down By the River,” in which Young sings about a man who shoots his lover and questions how he’ll go on: “This much madness is too much sorrow. It’s impossible to make it today, yeah.”
Forty-seven years later, in 2016, a Polish immigrant playwright named Martyna Majok (pronounced MY-oak) published a gripping, heartwrenching drama, “Ironbound,” about a Polish immigrant woman in New Jersey who grapples with a different sort of madness and sorrow, and wonders if she can make it through the day.
B Street Theatre’s new production of “Ironbound” is a penetrating and painful look into the heart and soul of the modern-era immigrant condition in America, as seen through the eyes of Darja, who struggles to stay afloat financially, physically and emotionally in Newark, N.J.’s hardscrabble, ethnically diverse Ironbound neighborhood.
The 90-minute drama, which is presented with no intermission, plays out at night under the dim glow of street lights at a trashed-out, graffiti-stained bus stop in nearby Elizabeth, N.J, over a span of 22 years. Majok’s script has dark humor sprinkled throughout, and some of it — especially Darja’s cuts and jabs — is quite funny. But make no mistake, this is a taut, searing commentary about the gauntlet of challenges and confusion that millions of immigrants confront when they come to America seeking a better life. (Majok won a Pulitzer earlier this year for her drama, “Cost of Living.”)
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In one scene, a disoriented and frustrated Darja (pronounced DAR-ya) cannot even explain why she is at the bus stop: “I don’t know. I just come here. It is what I do.”
We first meet her at the bus stop in the winter of 2014. She is a twice-divorced, 42-year-old single mother with a lot on her hands. She is working two low-paying, unfulfilling jobs — one at a paper factory in nearby Elizabeth, N.J., and the other as a cleaning lady for wealthy families. She is also juggling an adult son with a substance abuse problem who has gone AWOL, and a fast-talking postal worker boyfriend named Tommy, a man child who has cheated on Darja with one of her well-to-do house-cleaning clients.
Actress Dana Brooke and her powerful performance as the haunted, hurting Darja, propelling this drama forward with force. Throughout the drama, she masterfully throttles her emotional energy up and down, as needed, complementing that energy level with telling facial expressions and body language. While Brooke is juggling all of Darja’s baggage, she also does so while delivering her lines in broken English and a convincing Polish accent.
“We are not having nice conversation… You have broke me to 100 pieces!” Darja tells Tommy at one point, adding later, “You have broke me to millions pieces!”
As Darja’s on-again, off-again suitor Tommy, actor Peter Story comes off as a younger version of comedian and actor Kevin James. His physical humor and wisecracks — seasoned with an authentic “Jersey Shore” dialect — provide much of the comic relief. Arusi Santi is poignant as Darja’s first husband, Maks, a fellow Polish immigrant and factory worker with a thick accent, limited English and a mouth harp who dreams of moving to Chicago to become a blues musician. And Samuel Kebede is smooth as Vic, a street hustler who crosses paths with Darja one night, lays a rap on her and reveals a couple of secrets of his own.
On several occasions throughout the play, the time element can become confusing and fuzzy as the scenes jump back and forth from 1992 to 2006 to 2014 and, in one instance, into and out of a dream sequence. This was clearly a challenge for director Lyndsay Burch.
That said, Burch took a savvy approach to using the confined performance space of a bus stop. Her staging and blocking of the actors’ movements within the bus stop helped heighten Darja’s sense of claustrophobia and her inability to escape the constraints of the bus stop or her lower-class status.
As the drama shifts back and forth over time, the three men — Tommy, Maks and Vic — all move into and out of Darja’s life like circling planets. But the core of this story — the sun of this dramatic solar system — is Darja and the emotional heat she gives off as she seeks passage, any passage, to financial and emotional safety.
Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: A drama about a Polish immigrant woman’s challenges and heartbreak as she struggles to find love and financial security in America. Presented by B Street Theatre. Written by Martyna Majok. Directed by Lyndsay Burch.
Where: Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, 2700 Capitol Ave., Sacramento.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through October 28.
Cost: $33-$47, discounts available for students and seniors.
Information: 916-443-5300 or www.bstreettheatre.org
Running time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.