Several years ago over dinner, Chicago playwright and actor Sean Grennan’s sister Erin showed him a news clipping about a heart transplant recipient and her struggles with meeting the donor family. That clipping inspired the writing of the play “The Tin Woman,” which probed organ donations from two perspectives.
The title, of course, is a reference to “The Wizard of Oz” Tin Man and his quest for a heart. “The Tin Woman” originally premiered at Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula Players in 2014, with sister Erin in the lead role. Grennan currently is adapting it as a musical.
“The Tin Woman” tells the story of Joy in flashbacks between past and present events. As a recipient of a heart transplant, she gets a second chance at living, yet she’s in a downward spiral, questioning whether she deserves it. Hank and Alice lost their son, Jack, and donated his heart; they are struggling to accept his death. The two stories come together when Joy tracks down the family. Will meeting each other bring healing and a chance to begin again?
Sean Patrick Hargadon’s skillful and smooth direction provides a taut, thoughtful and passionate production for the Elgin Theatre Company’s current offering. Set intimately in the round, the focus is always on an ensemble of six stunning actors. The set is simple, contemporary, clean and extremely functional (thanks to Hargadon and Elizabeth Dawson), providing four locations: a hospital room, Joy’s apartment, the parents’ home, and a bench that doubles as a car and cold cemetery seat.
And I truly admire this ensemble – all six easily convey understandable, real feelings and situations. In a drama-comedy, it’s often difficult to establish credibility and believability, but they all pull it off with warmth, pathos and a great deal of hope and humor.
Heidi Swarthout’s Joy should be grateful for her second chance at life, but is immersed in a profound guilt that someone died so she could live. Swarthout, of Batavia, brilliantly presents Joy’s challenges both emotionally and physically. Clearly, Joy is not a loving person and avoids hugs. (“I’m not part of our country’s hug culture.”)
Swarthout convinces us that her character can’t quite work out why she’s supposed to live or for what or for whom. She truly makes you believe that her character was ready to go, and she’s struggling with the question of purpose, not to mention those 50 pills a day to prevent the rejection of her new heart. Swarthout is incredible.
Doreen Dawson’s Alice and Ken Kaden’s Hank are also deep in grief; their son was killed in a car crash at the age of 36, and neither parent, as evident by their strong portrayals, can reach that peace of acceptance. A magnificent actress, Dawson, of Geneva, gets all the sarcastic quips; she’s the healer and the bedrock of the family. Kaden, of Naperville, is gruff, aloof and hiding his grief, ready to explode – his anguish is evident through well-acted yelling and drinking. The hidden guilt his character carries is of a confrontation with Jack and the last words he said to him before the accident. Dawson’s Alice pierces with a summary of Hank: “The next time you talk about your feelings will be the first time.”
Thanks to the skills of Dawson and Kaden, their marriage entanglement is palpable.
Tiffany Jasinski appears in the dual roles of the nurse and best friend Darla. Jasinski, of Addison, delivers the majority of the play’s comedic lines. As Darla, she tries valiantly to bring Joy back into living life; as the nurse, she portrays a very Southern-accented cheery character. Jasinski is an excellent antidote to the tension within “The Tin Woman”; she is effervescent and buoyant.
Danielle Spence is Sammy, Jack’s cute younger sister and enthusiastic Chicago preschool teacher at the Rainbows of Learning, who also happens to be a blogger. She is all for meeting Joy, and Spence’s Sammy is a sweet hugger who loved her brother. Spence, of Naperville, is adorably quirky and New Age (her addition to the family meal blessing asks for “light, love, contentment and peace”). She also provides wacky, welcomed Act Two comic relief (the best water-in-the-ear imitation I’ve ever seen) and an over-the-top goofy meeting of the woman who has her brother’s heart.
Matt Hellyer’s Jack may not have many spoken lines, but he is the master of facial and physical expression. Hellyer, of Algonquin, is a silent, integral presence, and his Jack is a remarkable communicator from beginning to end. He’s both endearingly gentle and lovingly moving. And his confrontation scene is not to be missed.
“The Tin Woman” resonates with all of us. We’ve all dealt with uncertainty, we’ve all suffered the loss of someone in our lives, and we’ve probably all explored the question of being given a second chance at a new life. Elgin Theatre Company chose a superb play for inclusion in its 70th season. Just be forewarned to bring tissues. In between the humor, this is a tearjerker – and, by the way, please sign those donor cards. Second chances are worth it.
[Note to readers: The show runs two hours with one intermission. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID test are required. Sunday performances are sign-acted by Andrew Ross for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.]
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. When not traveling with her husband, she loves to teach, write, attend live theater, and serve on area theater boards.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Tin Woman,” presented by Elgin Theatre Company
WHERE: Elgin Art Showcase, eighth floor, 164 Division St., downtown Elgin
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through May 29
COST: $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students
INFORMATION: 847-741-0532, elgin-theatre.org