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Iron, at MTC Stage II

Skeletally, the setup of Iron is a familiar one: a young woman appears at a prison, asking to visit her mother. She has never visited her mother before; only eleven years old when her mother was incarcerated, she has only just discovered where her mother is interned. We in the audience know at once that her discoveries have only just begun.

But the daughter - Josie - knows this, too. She has been inspired to reconnect with her mother by something an acquaintance said when he learned that she couldn't recall anything about her life before year eleven. That's like living in a house built on mud, he told her, and you never know when the mud is going to start oozing up between the floorboards. I'd quote this line if I had the text, because it is the foundation, difficult and uncertain but definitely not muddy, of Rona Munro's arresting play, which was commissioned by and premiered at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.

All I knew about Iron was that Lisa Emery starred in it. Ms Emery has done many wonderful things on New York stages, but if I've seen only one of them (she stunned me in it Far East, at Lincoln Center, a few years ago), it was exciting enough to rule out any doubts that I may have had about enthusiastic reviews of the others. What I'd somehow overlooked was the presence of Jennifer Dundas in the cast. Ms Dundas knocked everybody out in the New York production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: I last saw her as a very strong Alexandra, opposite Stockard Channing's Regina, in The Little Foxes. She plays Josie to Ms Emery's Fay. John Curless and Susan Pourfar are the Guards. With set and costumes by Mark Wendland, sound by Bruce Ellman, and lighting by Kevin Adams, Iron, under Anna D. Shapiro's formidable direction, makes a very impressive opening to the 2003-2004 MTC season. (Our season, anyway; our tickets for The Violet Hour, with Robert Sean Leonard, fall on an evening in December, well into the run of that show.)

I've already indicated one of the mysteries of Iron: What erased Josie's memories of the first eleven years of her life? The other, entwined mystery is Fay's refusal to explain her crime, which was (no surprise) to murder her husband, Josie's father. Why did she kill him? Everything in the play points to a mother's protectiveness; Josie was in danger of being molested. But this is never disclosed. All the Fay tells us is that she was having a fight with her husband when he laughed at her (instead of making her laugh, as was his wont), and she went hot with rage. Her face torn by an involuntary snarl, she discovered a kitchen knife in her hand, and, the next thing you know... But why did he laugh at her, and why did it make her so impossibly mad? We know that Fay has impulse-control issues, but Ms Munro withholds a full explanation. Her play is powerful enough to make the withholding unimportant.

Whatever happened that night long ago, this much is quite clear: Josie's grandmother (Fay's mother-in-law and former drinking buddy) took Josie in and raised her to be as unlike her mother as possible. A star performer academically, Josie has held international positions in personnel management, and lived a quietly ordered life. But we sense from the start that beneath this restrained exterior lurks someone as wild as Fay, and the real drama of Iron is Josie's fraught passage, summarized in the move from a black suit with a grey top, through jeans and boots, to a clinging red dress. For a little while, I was worried that Josie would be so swept away by renewed contact with her mother that she'd go out and murder somebody, too, and wind up on her mother's cell block. Her trajectory is marked by increasingly violent and profane outbursts against the Guards, particularly when they enforce the 'no touching' rule. Ms Dundas keeps the result of Josie's unwinding in almost unbearable suspense. 

Ms Emery's performance exhibits the complementary marvel of displaying every facet of Fay's raw response to life. She wrests a heartbreaking poetry from Fay's thoroughly vulgar manner of speaking; although her part is littered with clichés and folksy interjections, Ms Emery invested Fay with a vigor that defied her depressing situation. Alternating desperate urgency with hostile detachment, childlike pleading with heroic denunciation, Fay may not be easy to like, but it's impossible not to care about her. She has the deeply sad idea of living vicariously through Josie, whom she urges to go out and have some fun, wearing stilettos if possible. But Josie's only idea is getting her mother out of prison and living with her - and she will never wear stilettos. These cross purposes give Iron the immediacy of a duel. 

The Guards, a man and a woman, are people whose lives have not, despite their professions, been touched by crime. It has been difficult for Sheila (the woman, 'Guard 2' in the dramatis personae) to resist Fay, but she has come to feel used by her. Her colleague, a student of 'moral philosophy,' takes a stance of worldly wisdom that comes to seem as brutal as outright menace. Both Guards can't seem to help treating Josie as a guilty party; as the relative of a murderer, she loses the right to be presumed innocent. For much of the action, while Fay and Josie endured their series of confrontations, the Guards strolled the perimeter of Stage II's thrust stage, and I began to feel patrolled myself. Mr Curless and Ms Pourfar, MTC veterans, supported beautifully.

Some plays are production-proof, but I rather doubt that Iron would be anything but dismal in hands less capable than these. The surprise of Lisa Emery's startling transformation into an emaciated virago is the sort of ancillary treat that comes from seeing Off-Broadway actors in a variety of roles, but even someone who has never seen her before would be bound, I think, to grasp the remarkable power of her performance. As for Ms Dundas, she never lets us forget the dread of worrying about that mud oozing up through the floorboards. (November 2003)

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