Penobscot Theatre Company ended its 48th season with a stunningly funny and upbeat immigrant’s story, “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” It ends this season with “Ironbound,” a darker take on a newcomer’s tale, running through May 21 at the Bangor Opera House.
These plays are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, a German Jew whose family died in the Holocaust, rode the American Dream to fame and fortune. Although Dr. Ruth’s story includes plenty of loss, the play is funny and hopeful.
Darja, the Polish immigrant at the center of “Ironbound” portrayed by Lucy Carapetyan, is not so lucky. She struggles to support herself and her child as the economy falters in the mid-2000s and she must downsize her expectations of America.
As upbeat as “Becoming Dr. Ruth” was, “Ironbound” is a grim and gritty story that sends theatergoers home questioning how we support new Mainers and if it is enough to keep them out of perpetual poverty.
This story unfolds outside at a bus stop in an industrial section of Newark.
Playwright Martyna Majok wrote “Ironbound” based on her mother’s immigrant experience. It was first performed in 2014 and opened off Broadway two years later. In 2018, Majok won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Cost of Living.”
Jonathan Berry, PTC’s artistic director, emphasizes Darja’s relationships with the three men in the play — her first husband, Maks (Brad LaBree), her mid-life lover, Tommy (Philip Kershaw), and a stranger, Vic (Brandon Rivera), a high school student who helps her escape an abusive relationship. Berry creates a tight and interesting ensemble.
The play takes place in 1992, 2006 and 2014, but it jumps around in time and it sometimes is hard to tell what is happening except by what male character Darja is speaking with. The men interact with Darja but never with each other.
Carapetyan, a Chicago-based actress, gives Darja a steely determination and a backbone of iron. She wears the character’s endearing and frustrating stubborn streak like a well-worn and comfortable sweater. Carapetyan portrays Darja’s vulnerability with a quiet dignity.
As Maks, Darja’s first husband and the man with whom she came to America, local actor LaBree swaggers delightfully. He is the one with dreams of becoming a musician, fully embracing the American mythology about the nation being a land of opportunity.
LaBree’s charm works until it doesn’t and Maks leaves his practical wife behind as he heads to Chicago’s blues scene.
Kershaw’s lothario Tommy is a very interesting mailman who says he loves Darja but has a hard time staying faithful. In his own way, Tommy is as stubborn as his reluctant partner is. Kershaw is the perfect foil for Carapetyan as the two negotiate their relationship in what are some of the show’s most tender moments.
Rivera makes the most of his small role as a teenage hustler who gives Darja money for a hotel after her second husband, who is never seen onstage, abuses her. His empathy for her situation and his insistence that she accept help stands out as a moment of kindness Darja has rarely experienced.
Technically, this show looks as grim and gritty as its dialogue feels. The set, designed by Chelsea M. Warren, is painted almost entirely in shades of gray and the stage is littered with debris. Isaac C. Anderson’s lighting design is stark. Christopher Duff’s sound design adds another layer to the bleak atmosphere.
Immigrants’ stories are important, especially since families escaping violence in Africa are being relocated to Bangor by Catholic Charities of Maine.
“Ironbound” illustrates the underbelly of those experiences as it spotlights one woman’s experience. Darja’s story is similar to American-born, working class women who can’t climb out of poverty without a double income, usually from a male romantic partner.
If “Becoming Dr. Ruth” is a celebration of the immigrant experience, then “Ironbound” is a cautionary tale of how life can go awry for newcomers without community support. As a community, we must make sure that New Mainers don’t endure the economic difficulties Darja does.
“Ironbound” will be performed through May 21. For information, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.