The Polish woman in “Ironbound” looks small on the epic Round House Theatre set, a looming grid of giant rusting I-beams in run-down Elizabeth, N.J. But her roar is huge in this gripping 90-minute premiere: Darja is a feisty immigrant living in inescapable poverty and struggling to support her son, and she is not about to take defeat without a fight.
You seldom see plays that are both harsh and wonderful, but that is the balance that Polish-born playwright Martyna Majok (pronounced my-OAK) strikes in the first knockout of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. “Ironbound” strips its four characters down to the raw essentials of survival: The setting is a scary-
looking bus stop under all that crushing ironwork, which designer James Kronzer frames against a terrifying black void. The bus stop is where Darja desperately waits for a ride, aches for a decent job and slinks under a bench just for somewhere to sleep.
Majok seems to know the terrain, and she writes with such energy and charisma that the play’s four characters feel vivid and real. (Once in a while they are funny, too.) The plot toggles across 20 years and opens in the present, with 42-year-old Darja bellowing at her latest boyfriend, Tommy, in what sounds like a no-holds-barred lovers’ spat. Majok quickly raises the stakes: Darja’s grown son has taken her car and is missing. In each of the play’s artfully winding conversations, something very heavy is on the line.
Darja is played in a straightforward (if highly testy) style by Alexandra Henrikson, who is pretty convincing with the character’s broken English. The talk is fast and furious between Henrikson and Jefferson A. Russell’s combustible Tommy; the characters are plainly drained and short-fused from living in such circumstances.
Under Daniella Topol’s superb direction, the cadence downshifts between a much younger Darja and her first husband, Maks, a boyish immigrant with dreams of making music. Maks has a sweet streak that Josiah Bania easily taps into, Polish accent and all, and that sweetness reveals a more relaxed Darja — briefly. Darja has a basic flintiness that’s almost tragic: She’s suffering the fate of an unskilled laborer as American manufacturing jobs evaporate, but her own hard-line demeanor is a key part of what trips her up.
A young street hustler named Vic initially seems too stagey, but Majok comes up with intriguing twists for this character, too (played with hip-hop bravado and palpable loneliness by William Vaughan). Vic is another cluster of bad but recognizable choices, and the play’s hook is watching how these characters warily connect or loudly square off. Topol takes pains to render their world properly: Kathleen C. Geldard’s jeans and T-shirt costumes look well-worn, trains and trucks echo in the distance of Eric Shimelonis’s sound design, and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt and Andrew R. Cissna smartly isolates Darja against the soaring I-beams and piles of discarded tires. At times, the black emptiness at the back threatens to close over it all.
The play never sugarcoats, yet it steers clear of bleakness because Majok’s language is so entertainingly alive. The performances simmer, with Russell particularly nailing Tommy’s hot-and-cold quality and Henrikson making you respect the steel in Darja’s spine. Majok’s most feathery trick is that she makes it uplifting to have met Darja; you can see why “Ironbound” already has an off-Broadway production lined up next spring, with Topol again at the helm.