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Step into the struggles of the American dream in latest City Theatre production, 'Ironbound'

| Wednesday, May 17, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja in City Theare's 'Ironbound'
Kristi Jan Hoover
JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja in City Theare's 'Ironbound'
A digital rendering by scenic designer Anne Mundell for City Theatre’s production of 'Ironbound.'
City Theatre
A digital rendering by scenic designer Anne Mundell for City Theatre’s production of 'Ironbound.'

A rusting bridge support surrounded by trash overwhelms the set of “Ironbound,” the final production in City Theatre's 2016-17 season.

It's an apt setting for the equally gritty play about a feisty Polish immigrant. Playwright Martyna Majok (pronounced my-OAK) was herself born in Poland, but grew up in New Jersey and Chicago. In her plays, she empathizes with the plight of working class, immigrant women.

Her lead character, Darja – played by Rebecca Harris in her 10th production with City – waits at a bus stop under an interstate bridge. Above her, everyone is moving, but she remains at the bus stop, waiting – for a decent job, a better life for her son, a good man.

“We wanted to have her stuck in this transient place that kind of transcends time,” says scenic designer Anne Mundell about the Tracy Brigden-directed play that moves across a 20-year time span.

“It's obviously a commentary on the plight of the immigrant,” she says. “This is a bridge support to a bridge that goes from New Jersey to Manhattan, but she's never on it. She's always under it.

“The idea is that there is an imaginary streetlight up there. And her whole world exists within that circle of light, under that streetlamp.”

Mundell teaches scenic design as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and has access to the wide range of theatrical hocus pocus. The crushing ironwork on the “Ironbound” stage, for example, looks completely authentic.

“Some of it's really low-tech, old theatrical techniques from before the dawn of time when the rocks were still warm,” she says. “It's mostly just wood. And some of it is newer techniques. The nuts and bolts were cut out by a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machine by my colleague Ben Carter at CMU.”

And to give it the final touch, Mundell says, “We have an amazing scenic artist named Leah Blackwood, who can make anything look like anything. It's fabulous.”

Picking up one of the huge, corroded-looking nuts is a surprise. It's as light as a piece of Styrofoam.

“So you have old stuff and new stuff,” Mundell says. “There's no metal in there except the screws that were used to put the stuff together.”

Despite her demanding schedule, Mundell is tempted by and drawn to design six or seven productions a year.

“It's kind of too much,” she says with a laugh. “But you get invited to do interesting projects like this. And I think this is an important story to tell. I love working with Tracy and I love City. So, it's like a candy box. You always have to reach for the chocolate fudge ones.”

The way the story is told is especially appealing to Mundell. As we view Darja back and forth over time, we gain windows into her life.

“I really love stories like this that are kind of in the aggregate, where you kind of get bits and pieces that are sort of piled on top of each other,” she says. “But no matter how far forward or back, it's repetitive. She's trying to build roots, she's trying to find the American dream and is struggling still.”

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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