Whenever a character in popular fiction is named "Joy," you should assume there's some irony involved. She's probably destitute or depressed or mentally unstable or otherwise joyless. Such is the case with the lead character of Sean Grennan's recent play, The Tin Woman, a probing affair from this accessible chronicler of contemporary morés.
Here, Joy is a caustic young spitfire with a tendency to wallow in negativity and hide it behind humor. She's in a hospital convalescing from heart-transplant surgery. In the following weeks, she'll grow detached from her friends, wracked by survivor's guilt and the existential unease of living on the whims of a dead man's ticker. In one of the play's most perceptive scenes, Joy's infinitely patient and sardonic best friend, Darla, muses about the identity of Joy's unwitting savior: "Let's say he was a great guy — say, a doctor without a border, with his whole life ahead of him. You'll feel like dirt next to that. 'Why did I survive and he die?' You'll never be able to do as much good as he might have done... you miserable loser! Or let's say he was a thug and was killed in a shootout with the cops while robbing crippled orphans..."
Most of us will never need to confront questions such as these. But for transplant survivors and the donors' grieving families, The Tin Woman offers a guidebook of the expected emotional fallout.
The play opens in previews May 18 at Actors' Playhouse. It's the first Grennan play that Actors’ has produced since 2013’s Making God Laugh, and director David Arisco sees it as a powerful departure for this normally lighthearted writer.
"This piece is Sean going in a new direction," Arisco says. "He's finally saying, 'I'm going to tackle some more serious issues. And I'm going to see how I deal with it, because I'm not a writer who comes from that background.'
"I like shows where we can get an audience engaged with stuff they may have encountered or may be encountering, like Next to Normal with bipolar schizophrenia," he adds, "like the Judy Garland play The End of the Rainbow, with substance abuse in the family. I like plays where people come out of the closet with issues they've got in their own family because of something they've seen onstage."
The six-piece cast is almost entirely local, but for the critical role of Joy, Arisco cast Jennifer Christa Palmer, out of Orlando, who previously enjoyed a supporting role in Actors' Scott and Hem in the Valley of Allah. The director says Palmer fits the description of her character in the script as "someone who's able to be acerbic and standoffish but you still like her." He adds, "It's nice to be able to find somebody who has... those qualities and can bring it to the role."
"We're learning [to strike that balance], day by day," Palmer says from rehearsal. "As much as this may sound trite, Joy has a good heart, and obviously it's been replaced!" She says her character is "a kind of a warrior" seeking to find her way. "But there are a lot of dark things that are going to come across your brain in that passageway," she explains. "It's been really interesting to explore those places but still find the humor in it. As much armor as she wears, she's full of heart as well."
As important as Joy's journey is that of the family of the donor. He died young, in a car accident, and his mother Alice (Laura Turnbull), father Hank (Ken Clement), and sister Sammy (Natalia Coego) grieve in markedly different ways. These are challenged when Joy requests, and is granted, a meeting with her donor's relatives. Hank, living in a bubble of avoidance and denial, has retreated into the bottle, while emotional, new-agey preschool teacher Sammy sees a meeting with Joy as a form of metaphysical connection with her late brother.
Alice, meanwhile, "seems to be very grounded and logical and sensible," Turnbull says. "This has been a really rough time. I think [Hank and Alice] have been the yin and yang to each other... [But] you can't lose a child and not have it affect you."
Befitting the play's sober themes, Actors' Playhouse is teaming with the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine for post-show talkbacks about the school's organ, tissue, and eye bank. And in the lobby, attendees can sign up to be organ donors.
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That said, you can still expect to laugh at the characters' recognizable foibles. Grennan may be drifting into dark territory with this play, but that doesn't mean he's Beckett or Pinter.
"He writes for the common-man theatergoer — the theatergoer who isn't quite sure whether or not the really heavy, esoteric, on-the-edge theater stuff is really their thing," Arisco says. "But at the same time, he writes with substance, because he writes about real people. You see yourself onstage, you see your mom onstage, you see your brother onstage. And even when he's doing stuff that's serious-minded, he has humor within it."
The Tin Woman
Previews run May 18 and 19; regular performances are May 20 through June 12 at Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293; actorsplayhouse.org. Tickets cost $15 to $53.