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Rona Munro’s ‘Iron’ a Bracing Prison Drama

October 21, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) _ Don’t look for a sweet mother-daughter bonding experience in ``Iron,″ Rona Munro’s bleak yet bracing prison drama that has inaugurated the fall season at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II.

The strength of Munro’s small, narrowly focused play lies in its lack of sentimentality as well as a refusal to sensationalize its story. ``Iron″ takes place in a women’s prison somewhere in the United Kingdom, a gloomy, austere setting where 45-year-old Fay (Lisa Emery) is serving a life sentence for murdering her husband.

Fay has been incarcerated for 15 years and now her inquisitive daughter, 25-year-old Josie (Jennifer Dundas), has arrived to renew a relationship that ended abruptly when Josie’s father was stabbed to death.

The two play a cat-and-mouse game as they attempt to reconnect: the embittered mother wondering why her daughter has decided to seek her out; the bewildered daughter trying to understand what exactly happened to send her mother to prison.

Fay badgers the businesslike Josie into revealing personal details, urging her daughter to get out and enjoy life, and hoping, perhaps, to live vicariously through the girl’s experiences. Josie, in turn, presses for information about her childhood, a period in her life blanked out by her father’s death.

Their meetings are watched over by two suspicious prison guards, played with just the slightest hint of malevolence by John Curless and Susan Pourfar. They are eerie eavesdroppers, whose lives revolve around the stringent jailhouse rules.

Munro’s dialogue has an aching terseness, particularly when Fay is describing life with her husband and the exact circumstances of his murder. The mystery of his death is revealed gradually as mother and daughter fill in the pieces of their past lives.

Emery is particularly strong as the desolate Fay, spitting out her anger during those brief visits with her offspring. Dundas brings a deceptive calm to Josie, a mousy young woman who has been adrift for much of her adult life.

There’s a deliberate ambiguity to the characters and the plot, an uneasiness heightened by Anna D. Shapiro’s taut direction. Designer Mark Wendland’s setting is equally forbidding, particularly the all-glass cell where Fay is kept, making her seem like a strange, exotic creature under constant examination.

Despite the talk of murder, there are no startling revelations in Munro’s tough-minded little play. Yet, that doesn’t detract from its effectiveness. ``Iron″ more than lives up to its title.

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