Eliciting empathy is “a trick,” says a prison guard in Rona Munro’s taut character study. The guard is talking about Fay, who is serving a life sentence for murder. True, Fay manipulates anyone who comes into her orbit. But the guard’s comment might just as aptly describe playwrights who script movie-of-the-week tearjerkers about wayward wives who, like Fay, plunge a kitchen knife into their drunken husbands. Indeed, the “trick” of such dramas is to make characters who have committed heinous deeds thoroughly understandable. It works by gradually meting out an explanation that doesn’t quite justify the crime but encourages us to pity the protagonist and see her as a victim of circumstances beyond her control.
Munro has the craft for such calculations. But you won’t see Iron on Lifetime TV. Despite the formulaic situation—for the first time in the 15 years since Fay was sent up, her daughter, Josie, comes to visit—Munro explores more unsettling territory.
The key is Fay (Lisa Emery), whose motivations remain ambiguous. Sure, Fay recounts the out-of-control rage that impelled her to impale her husband. But try as Josie (Jennifer Dundas) might to find a narrative of domestic violence leading inexorably to murder, Fay does not comply.
In a series of carefully calibrated scenes, mother and daughter open up to each other, shut down, connect, detach. Emery and Dundas, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, pace through this wary dance with the graceful give-and-take of pianists playing four-handed Schubert. Emery, best known for portraying properly repressed ladies (in the recent Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, for instance), explodes with feral intensity. Shifting subtly from the controlling captive to the forsaken loner, she burns with need but singes those who try to come close.
When Fay finally drives Josie away for good, her reasons remain mysterious. On the face of it, she seems simply to have gone too far in one of her periodic, ugly outbursts. But Munro also hints that Fay may be deliberately shoving Josie, who has plunged into an all-consuming effort to reopen the murder case, back into her own life; there are even ever-so-slight intimations that she’s sparing Josie from recovering incest memories of her father.
All this is merely implied. Munro plants some restrained clues but makes us reach for such possibilities. The very lack of a tidy answer gives Iron its cold, enduring weight.