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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Rona Munro's drama is set in a maximum security prison. Crime and punishment, is a theme but essentially this is a mother and daughter story -- the mother a forty-five-year-old who is serving a life sentence for murdering her husband; the daughter a twenty-five-year old career woman who hasn't been in touch with her in the fifteen years of her imprisonment.
The play is bathed in an aura that's gloomy and foreboding: its set is a stark steel gray and black prison visiting room with an upstage glimpse of Fay's (the mother) claustrophobic cell. . . the dominating sounds are of doors clanging shut repeatedly and with unyielding finality . . the mother and daughter's meetings are overhung, not just with the undisclosed elements of their history but the smothering presence of two prison guards who are there to prevent infractions of the "no touching" rule.
Yet for all its grimness and the tendency to come off as too talky, this is not just a live version of numerous television movies and docu-dramas with similar settings. With just four actors on stage, viewers must use the sound effects to conjure up the other prisoners and guards that would be seen in a movie crime story. In lieu of the typical crime story's string of unusual revelations and a neat windup, Munro explores the complexities of her characters sufficiently to make us know and care about them, but leaves us to ponder the motivations that remain interestingly vague to the end. The picture the playwright paints of prison life -- especially for someone without hope for freedom -- is absolutely devastating though her descriptions tend to be more poetic than polemical.
To further nudge the audience's interpretive skills Iron, like Bold Girls (another American premiere currently Off-Broadway), is studded with symbolism. This applies even to the title which evokes the iron-like vise of a prison on its inmates' psyche, even though they are no longer kept in iron chains. Josie's fruit baskets, their healthy contents eaten by the prison guards but ignored by Fay who prefers chocolate and cigarettes, symbolically foretell the results of Josie's efforts to help Fay recall the past in order to have a chance for a future. The prison doors which we hear closing repeatedly don't just shut in the body but the life spirit.
Ms. Munro is fortunate to have her play make its New York debut with a cast that simply couldn't be better. In fact, Lisa Emery, who is usually seen in more sleek, sophisticated and funny plays (Present Laughter, Dinner With Friends, Rumors, etc.) is a revelation as the volatile, needy "lifer." She's all twitchy discomfort. Dressed in wrinkled baggy pants and loosely fitting sweater she's like a bird with its feathers no longer sleek, ever ready to drop a quickly gathered crumb and take flight if anyone comes too close.
Jennifer Dundas is also very fine as the buttoned-up daughter who has come to regain the past that seems to have been swallowed up by the trauma of losing her parents to become the ward of a grandmother who never so much as mentions Fay. As the visits become a regular thing (the time frame is unclear, probably about a year), we see the mother-daughter bond re-established. Fay's joy in these visits is genuine, but her interest and pride in Josie's success as a young executive is tempered by a manipulative neediness to live through her. Thus, she wants Josie to get out and have her idea of fun -- a night out in a bar, making friends, shedding her conservative suit for a bright red dress-- and then share all the details with her. Josie does change and even though that change inevitably puts her in a red dress, the real transformation comes from the bits and pieces of unraveled memories and the growing belief that her mother killed the father in self defense and should have another hearing.
The two guards -- John Curless as a middle-aged man who provides the play's very few touches of humor and Susan Pourfar as a young single mother -- are more than shadowy figures, but provide an interesting psychological subtext. Pourfar is particularly good as the young woman who has built up a mountain of ill will towards Fay. When she needed to vent to someone about being abandoned after the birth of her baby by a man who as she puts it "slipped away from me with the afterbirth", the young woman allowed the boundaries between guard and prisoner to be blurred, only to have Fay use the special treatment that resulted for her own purposes. The end of that boundary crossing relationship is also an omen of the play's gut-wrenchingly sad ending.
When the play premiered in London at the Royal Court's downstairs Jerwood Theatre the decision was made to have the actors speak the Scottish author's words with English accents. While the American cast has the English accents down perfectly, I overheard quite a bit of grumbling about not catching a lot of the heavily accented dialogue which makes me wonder if the play would not work just as well using American speech. Josie's "working abroad" (specifically, San Diego) could work just as well if the prison were on the East Coast or in the Midwest so that going to the West Coast would take her further than any place Fay had ever seen.
To add some relief from the stasis inherent in the predominating scenes that have the women facing each other across a table, the playwright has set several scenes in the upstage prison cell, and also given the two main players a rest during a scene between the two guards (an interchange which would benefit from some cutting). Director Anna D. Shapiro also keeps stasis in check by keeping the actors moving around and changing positions which also enhances the viewing experience of people sitting at either side of MTC's thrust stage.
Ms. Munro, something of a rising star in England, is clearly a playwright with a gift for bringing characters to three-dimensional life. You have another week to catch Bold Girls at the 29th Street Rep. For our review of the London production of Iron go here.
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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