'The Tin Woman' will touch your heart despite less than stellar production

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- A physical heart isn’t the only kind that malfunctions in “The Tin Woman,” Sean Grennan’s neatly-constructed and identifiable, heartfelt, nightmarish comedy-drama set in the present-day New York City area.

Nightmarish in this case has nothing to do with horror, a la Stephen King. It has everything to do with a parent’s worst living nightmare – having to bury a child.

The subject matter in this play, like that of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, has so much power to depress and break someone’s heart, the writer must leaven the material with comic relief. Otherwise, you might as well lump these plays into a non-existent genre we’ll call “Theater of the Unbearable – or “Theater of the Unwatchable.”

Fortunately, there’s no need for either term with “The Tin Woman,” as Grennan weaves necessary humor into his play about a woman who receives a heart transplant from a young man. Grennan displays flashes of Neil Simon in his ability to create identifiable characters and find humor in situations that encompass humanity’s most trying, heart-shattering moments. “The Tin Woman” obviously elicits emotions which come from the heart, but it’s also a cerebral, thought-provoking piece.

The play, which according to the script is based on a true story, began performances Wednesday at Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. It will run through June 12. The production is on stage in the Playhouse’s upstairs theater, which is small and intimate, allowing for a visceral, powerful play viewing experience.

Unfortunately, director David Arisco and his cast mostly fall short of balancing humor with pathos.

“The Tin Man,” a relatively new work, will “have you laughing out loud one moment and wiping away tears seconds later,” Arisco wrote in the program.

However, this production is more heavily tilted toward the humorous. That, in too many cases, comes at the expense of an ability to strongly sympathize with the characters and feel their pain.

The production moves at a rapid, cinematic-like pace, with multiple sets on stage at the same time. This allows for seamless transitions between scenes, which often oscillate between present and past tense, the world of Joy and that of the family of the donor, Jack.

Actions in both settings play out side by side, almost simultaneously at times, until the lives of the characters merge in an incredibly touching scene of closure and comfort. It’s the most powerful moment in a less than stellar production.

Anyone who’s required an organ transplant knows the horrible ordeals of blood tests and waiting lists. But what happens after a successful transplant is complete? Does life revert to normal for the recipient, the donor and their families? That’s hardly the case in “The Tin Woman,” in which Joy, given a second shot at life with a donated heart, suffers from survivor guilt and low self-worth. Why does she deserve to live while Jack, a young wanna-be photographer killed in a car accident, died? Was Joy, a 30s-something freelance graphic designer, somehow better than him or destined to do greater things in life?

To help achieve closure, Joy’s friend, Darla, suggests she track down Jack’s family. The playwright’s inclusion of such a meeting helps make this otherwise less-than-original work different than other plays I’ve seen about death, the grieving process and how everyone deals with loss differently.

But as successful as “The Tin Woman” is in balancing the comic and dramatic, it’s a script that could use work. One metaphor involving a river and leaves isn’t entirely clear, for example. Jack’s businessman dad, Hank, is nearing retirement. In the aftermath of his son’s death, he’s become apt to snap, while showing no signs of sadness. The root of his feelings toward his son turns out to be a cliché.

On the positive side, Jack, who seems to be a character incapable of change, does so profoundly toward the end in the play’s most touching scene performed admirably. Have tissues ready.

“The Tin Woman” presents several acting challenges. One of them is to make audience members care about characters who act in an unlikable manner.

That includes the grouchy Hank.

Ken Clement, an award winning actor, doesn’t quite present an accolades-deserving performance as the bitter dad. His irritability too often sounds more like a whiny, spoiled kid who didn’t get his or her way than a convincingly bitter husband. It’s hard to make us like this man, but Clement manages to do so when Hank changes at the end, making him  soft, caring and loving.

Laura Turnbull plays Hank’s wife, Alice, as a woman so used to her husband’s grouchiness, she’s come to accept it as the norm. Her Alice tries her best to curb anger at her husband, but understandably isn’t always successful. Turnbull gives us a recognizable, if not always likeable character. However, toward the end, she undergoes a convincing change, investing the character with a comforting, sympathetic warmth. And she’s particularly understanding and ingratiating toward Joy when she comes to visit the family.

Natalia Coego provides comic relief as Jack’s younger sister, imbuing her with an unrestrained emotional quality that makes her overact comically like a knee-jerk reaction. But Coego is also touchingly sincere and moving at appropriate times.

Jennifer Christa Palmer invests Joy with a wry, sarcastic sense of humor. This underlies a conflicted, aimless, lonely and bitter woman with low self-esteem. For her, it’s almost as though she’s some sort of “freak,” – perhaps not unlike The Tinman in “The Wizard of Oz” a man made out of tin who’s prone to rusting and in need of repair.

What’s missing from this performance is a convincing sense of survivor’s guilt, that apologetic feeling for being alive. And when Joy steps into the home of Jack’s family, she appears too confident and relaxed for a woman who has just entered the home of the dead person whose heart is keeping her alive.

As Jack, Cliff Burgess avoids the biggest mistake of coming across as a haunting figure. But his facial expression remains the same for too long. Also, it seems like he’s just taking up space at time; we barely even know he’s on stage at times, especially when he’s dimly lit.

Rounding out the cast, Llela Elam transitions beautifully from the role of a comic, overly-sympathetic nurse who treats Joy like a child, into a flamboyant, flashy Darla.

Jodi Della Ventura’s scenic design allows for multiple sets on stage, paving the way for smooth transitions. The sets are simple and appropriately non-realistic; the stand-alone door to the home of Jack’s family seems to exist in space, attached to nothing.

Lighting designer Eric Nelson expertly uses his design to contrast between non-realistic scenes, with dark, shadowy lighting and brighter, realistic scenes.

This play, and the Actors Playhouse production of it, aren’t without faults, but it’s difficult to imagine Grennan’s play not touching your heart in some way.

 IF YOU GO

WHAT: “The Tin Woman.”

WHEN: Through June 12. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (excluding May 20 and June 12).

WHERE: Actor’s Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.

HOW MUCH: For tickets and pricing, call (305) 444-4181 or visit http://www.actorsplayhouse.org.