Theater: Second Chance

‘The Tin Woman’ dives into matters of the heart

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‘The Tin Woman’ tells the story of a woman who receives a heart transplant, and decides to meet the family of the deceased donor. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Some bad news/good news for supporters of the spunky Ross Valley Players (RVP): Even though the current production of Sean Grennan’s The Tin Woman has its low points and occasionally—especially in its final scene—veers into over-sentimentalized melodrama, sturdy direction and a fine acting ensemble make it well worth seeing. The show will be at RVP’s Barn Theatre through June 10.

Allegedly based on a true story and borrowing its title from Dorothy’s plaintive “Tin Woodman” companion who accompanies her on the yellow brick road in the fervent hope that Oz’s Wizard will give him a heart, Grennan’s psycho-romantic drama reverses the Oz plot by having Joy (Joanna Cretella), his protagonist, after successfully receiving a heart transplant, fall into a deep depression because she doesn’t believe that she is worthy of someone else’s sacrifice.

Concerned about Joy’s mental state, and believing that knowing more about her donor might help, her girlfriend Darla (a buoyant Sumi Narendran Cardinale), urges her to contact the agency that arranged the transplant, which then advises that she must write a letter to the grieving family that sets out the reasons why she would like to visit them. In the process, she learns that her donor was a young man named Jack (Jesse Lumb), who died in a car accident. Consent is obtained, along with an invitation to have dinner with them.

This initial visit doesn’t go particularly well. It seems that Jack’s family is in turmoil over their loss. His mother Alice (Ellen Brooks) is warm and welcoming, as is his ditzy sister, Sammy (Isabelle Grimm), who lightens the atmosphere with her bursts of uncontrolled energy—a  by-product of her work as a preschool teacher. Jack’s father, Hank (Keith Jefferds), is the exception. Gruff and unmannerly, he argues with everyone and strongly objects to Joy’s presence. Eventually, we learn that he has been at odds with his son for months, because of the latter’s preference for photography instead of joining the family’s prosperous building supply business. Now, the rift weighs on him, and he responds with anti-social behavior that is worsened by heavy drinking.

Their shared tragedy is leavened by comic episodes as emotional boundaries fade away and all concerned recognize that death and life are part of a continuous circle.

RVP’s production is presented on a simple but versatile set by set designer Ron Krempetz that serves the needs of Grennan’s script quite well. I’ve already praised the acting ensemble, but Ellen Brooks’ sturdy portrayal of Jack’s family matriarch—particularly in confrontations with her crusty husband—and Joanna Cretella’s smooth handling of Joy’s transition from emotional cripple to a healthy young woman, merit special mention.

On the negative side, for me the deceased Jack’s ghostly presence, silently moving from place to place during the show, seemed an unnecessary distraction, and Sammy’s stereotype of a clueless preschool teacher denigrated this hardworking profession without adding to the plot’s development. Both are mostly script and directorial problems, unrelated to the specific actor’s performance.

Finally, a note about the symbolic importance that the play gives to the “heart.” Over hundreds of years, this vital organ that keeps us alive by pumping blood throughout the body has acquired non-anatomical meanings that relate to bravery, love, fortitude, compassion and other aspects of human behavior. In some quarters it is even seen as the center of emotions, as opposed to the brain’s reasoning. The Tin Woman builds its super sentimental conclusion on characters making a connection to something that is more than it really is. When someone gets a heart transplant, he/she gets a replacement part for the body that they urgently need—no more, no less.

On the other hand, I agree with the struggling players in Broadway’s Damn Yankees when they sing that sometimes, “You gotta have heart!” So, go figure.

NOW PLAYING: The Tin Woman runs through June 10 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

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