Lisa Emery and Jennifer Dundas in Iron(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lisa Emery and Jennifer Dundas in Iron
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
For the mothers and daughters I know, early adolescence is generally the worst conflict patch -- those long years between 11 and 15. That's when the phrase "I hate you" gets bandied back and forth and when stretches of silence are regularly on the household agenda.

Fay (Lisa Emery) and Josie (Jennifer Dundas) don't have that problem in Rona Munro's Iron. When Fay was sent to prison for murdering her husband, Josie was only 10. Now a young woman who wears boxy suits and pulls her hair back conservatively with a clip, Josie has let 15 years go by before attempting to resume a relationship with Fay. Claiming that she can't recall anything of her first decade, she's come to the gray and black facility visiting area with the express purpose of having her memory jogged.

What transpires between the two women, as well as what doesn't transpire between them, is the burden of playwright Munro's melancholy song. She's compelled to examine the maternal instinct, wanting particularly to know (and show) how far a mother will go to protect a child from what she judges to be the damaging truth. With that sizable question in mind, Munro seems intent in Iron not only to unfold the Fay/Josie tale but also to put forth a metaphor for all mother/daughter relations. (The title refers to both the prison where Fay languishes in her narrow cell and to her willpower.) Of course, mother/daughter give and take is not an unusual subject for women playwrights to take up, whereas male dramatists are typically intrigued by father/son relationships.

In a series of visits that cover several months or maybe a year or two, Josie attempts to wangle the complete story of her father's death from Fay. She has a faint recollection that the dead man had been abusing Fay, and that's why Fay plunged a knife into him. One reason Josie wants corroboration is that she thinks she can use the info to have her mother's life sentence reassessed. But Fay, caged for some time, has learned to be cagey. She doesn't want every detail aired; she'd rather Josie retain relatively unsullied recollections of her father. So, over the period of time covered by Munro in a drama rarely leavened with humor, Fay allows Josie to get somewhat close to her but no closer. She prods her persistent daughter to recover some of the happier episodes from the past but, in a powerful denouement, contrives to keep the full picture to herself.

Symbolic of her resistance is the repeated clanging of prison doors; Fay is shut down in more than one aspect. (Sound designer Bruce Ellman allows the ominous ringing to echo loudly. Kevin Adams's lighting design is alternately dark and disturbingly bright as if to confirm that, while some harsh realities are being exposed, others remain hidden.) Also emblematic of Fay's holding out is the fact that baskets of fruit sent by Josie to her mother go uneaten -- Munro's way of saying that Josie's quest will, for the most part, be fruitless. On the other hand, when Josie first shows up, Fay advises her to do something about her glum appearance: Wear red, her mother advises. And, from visit to visit, Josie does begin to change her look, appearing for the penultimate scene in a red dress and a softer coiffeur.

The last thing Munro wants is to be polemical, so she has carefully created three-dimensional characters in Fay and Josie. Fay is by turns tough and sensitive, resentful and haunted. She's not an easy customer, and Munro has been canny about her motives. Prison has hardened her, but how much of that is genuine hardness and how much she assumes for the purposes of fooling her daughter and her keepers is left somewhat ambiguous. Josie is stymied by what she can't figure out about herself. It's in the scenes where mother and daughter connect that Munro does her most moving writing.

Susan Pourfar, Jennifer Dundas, Lisa Emery,and John Curless in Iron(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Susan Pourfar, Jennifer Dundas, Lisa Emery,
and John Curless in Iron
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Munro cleverly threads an interesting subplot into the play. Her other two characters are a middle-aged male guard (John Curless) and a younger female guard (Susan Pourfar) who has cultivated a major grudge against Fay. Polite to Fay on the surface, she eventually admits to her colleague that she let herself confide in the inmate and then came to realize that Fay's intention was to take advantage of the confidence. The angry guard may be wrong about this -- Munro keeps those cards close to her chest -- but she nevertheless considers herself a loser in the surrogate mom liaison.

Because Iron is primarily composed of Fay-Josie duologues, Munro walks a delicate line between action and stasis. She does what she can to minimize that problem by setting a few scenes in a prison garden rather than in the visitors area or in Fay's upstage room. She also gives Fay and Josie a breather for a scene in which the guards talk about themselves and, especially in the case of the male officer, therefore register as more than figures walking silently and vigilantly about the premises. Director Anna D. Shapiro adds whatever movement she can to a play wherein the main characters are kept from touching by prison rules. (There is contact, though, and even a physical struggle that's overseen by fight coach Brent Langdon.) For variety, Shapiro has the women sitting on different parts of the gray set that Mark Wendland has designed with stark sleekness, but it's a faint attempt to disguise the play's talkiness.

Lisa Emery has played hard-bitten characters before, but not often. Tall, blonde, and patrician, she's usually called on to represent the WASP upper class. Not here, though, and she's up to the demands, keeping the audience guessing about the unfortunate Fay right up to the final image of the production. Appearing in a shapeless top and trousers for much of the action (Mark Wendland supervised the costumes), Emery is like a stork walking across a marsh -- all angles and wariness. She demonstrates Fay's dilemma impeccably and the English accent in which she speaks is well nigh impeccable.

Jennifer Dundas, whose challenge here is to make changes that are imperceptible from scene to scene -- until she dons the red dress -- also performs with quiet skill and in a similarly commendable accent. (Munro is a Scottish playwright who has lived in England for some time. Apparently, a decision was made -- perhaps in consultation with dialect coach Charlotte Fleck -- that the cast speak in English rather than Scottish accents.) Both John Curless and Susan Pourfar lend credibility to their roles; Pourfar is especially good at allowing the guard's streak of resentment to show through supposed professional distance. All in all, Iron is steely.