The thumping noise you hear coming from the Midwest in early summer is the sound of a human heartbeat in the world premiere of Sean Grennan‘s The Tin Woman, a rueful comedy about a post-op heart transplant recipient who decides to meet the family of the late organ donor. Peninsula Players, the Equity summer stock company now in its 79th season in Door County, WI, is presenting the script’s first bow. We took Grennan’s pulse with a handful of questions.
Performances of the play from the author of the regionally popular Making God Laugh, Married Alive!, A Dog’s Life, Beer for Breakfast and more began June 17 in Fish Creek, WI, in a run that continues to July 6. Actor-playwright Grennan, a New Yorker originally from Chicago, is also working as an actor in Peninsula Players‘ stock company this summer — learning lines for other writers’ plays and taking notes for future tweaks to his own.
In The Tin Woman, according to Peninsula Players, “a young woman’s life is given an unexpected jump-start through the gift of a donated heart. Her yearning to meet the still-grieving family who made the donation results in an ending surprising for all.” It’s billed as “a funny, heart-warming comedy.”
Grennan, who has always had a gift for a good quip, cuts deeper in this play than he has in past scripts, allowing a rueful heart recipient named Joy to struggle with questions of purpose, life expectancy and survivor guilt while facing a family of strangers who are struggling with their own grief and issues of silence. But, spoiler alert: It’s still a comedy.
Tom Mula directs a cast that features Broadway and resident talent, including Joel Hatch (recently of Broadway’s Annie and Billy Elliot) as the donor’s father, Hank; Erin Noel Grennan as Joy; Kristine Thatcher (herself a playwright) as the donor’s mom, Alice; Erica Elam as the donor’s quirky New Age sister, Sammy; Matt Holzfeind as the donor, Jack; and Carol Kuykendall in the dual track of a nurse and Joy’s best friend, Darla.
The production team includes scenic designer Sarah E. Ross, costume designer Pam Rehberg, lighting designer Steve White, sound designer Nick Keenan, properties designer Amanda Herrmann, stage manager Deya Friedman and production manager Sarah Burnham.
Grennan answered some questions via email from Door County Peninsula, a finger of land that juts into Lake Michigan from northeast Wisconsin.
I’m interested in the first flash that a playwright has when working on a new script. How did The Tin Woman begin? What inspired it?
Sean Grennan: My sister, Erin, told me about a news item that she had read several years ago. It was about a woman who receives a heart and a meeting with the family of the donor. The family felt that she and the donor would have hit it off. She originally thought that it might be a kind of romantic comedy about a love that never could be. It didn’t end up that way, but there is still a trace of that there.
What came first in the process — a conflict, a character, the situation?
Sean Grennan: Actually, as I mulled it around, different images came to me including the resolving one at the end of the play. Then I figured out character and, once their voices were locked in, it was a matter of just transcribing for them as they got us to that resolving image.
Do you have any personal connection to the organ donor experience? What sort of research did you do? Is it safe to say it’s your most research-heavy play?
Sean Grennan: It is probably my most research-heavy play. I don’t have any personal experience with organ donation but I’ve had a lot of hospital stays, including some pretty serious situations. Beyond that, I just dug through medical sites about the subject. Recently, I had the opportunity to moderate a round table with two heart recipients. They gave me a few more tweaks for the script. Fortunately, they felt the play was very accurate, particularly regarding the emotional journey.
There is well of sadness about the characters in the play. The family of the heart donor is grieving and the patriarch of the family has shut down. The recipient is struggling with issues of survivor guilt and purpose. I love the mutual sadness and the mutual need. Was this sadness there from the beginning or did it grow?
Sean Grennan: It definitely grew. As I started to research the show, I found that there were lots of very happy survivor stories but also not. There are support groups that have sprung up around this as there is a real need. While it might seem like winning lottery for some, for others it’s not so simple. I was drawn to that on this occasion. I also thought that while some members of the donor family might feel good about the donation, others might not be so sanguine. Those conflicts seemed like the brightest colors for me on this outing. Resolving them or at least finding ways for both parties to help each other very much drew me.
The Tin Woman deals with sadness, grief and loss much more than your other plays — with the exception of Making God Laugh, perhaps, which shows the life of a family over several decades. What prompted this new color for you?
Sean Grennan: I think it’s just a different thing. My first language is comedy and I’ve written several for specific theatres and specific audiences — commission-type situations. (I like to make a living at this.) However, this play came along after Making God Laugh, which in itself was a bit of a departure for me. MGL let me put humor and sadness right up next to each other, line to line and, if I have any signature as a writer, I think that’s it. Also, honestly, I’m getting older and have had more loss, more uncertainty and even a few mortality scares. They say you can’t hide in your writing and I’m not above the law.
Do you meticulously outline and map out your plays, and then write? Or are you more expressionistic and write as the spirit/situation moves you? Or does it depend on the project?
Sean Grennan: I don’t meticulously outline. For me it works better to think generally, stay open, riff and hope for surprises. I heard a writer once say that if he doesn’t surprise himself, he’ll never be able to surprise anyone else. That said, once I’ve got a first sketch of a show, I’ll go back and tinker with the structure a fair amount, as I did with this show.
When writing the play, what character surprised you the most, or took you on a twisty journey that you didn’t expect?
Sean Grennan: Honestly, the mother, Alice, started out being pretty perfunctory in early drafts and just kept gaining heft as we went along. Getting to this first production and having a gift like Kristine Thatcher play her made me rewrite ahead of the first rehearsal even more. Hers isn’t really the central journey but it’s a good one and I love her.
Silence in families intrigues me, and it’s a major part of the play. You chart it so well, with spare language. Is there familial autobiography in The Tin Woman?
Sean Grennan: Do 50-year-old grudges count as silence? Then, yes. Actually seeing and reading other shows and just studying real life more has made me very aware of the things we don’t say or that we talk around. People have told me that I’m a pretty verbal guy and early drafts of this show had characters spelling everything out in monologues or bald exposition. I found that the more I chopped that away the stronger the themes of the show got. (Yes, Playwriting 101: “Show, don’t tell.”) I think the strongest parts of this show contain no dialogue. I’ve learned a lot from this show. I don’t like to say that it’s better or more evolved than my other work, as I loved those other pieces and don’t want to disavow them. It feels like denying your children or something. But I’m not using my humor shield very much in this show. Just as I find I’m using it less in my life.
The structure of the play is fractured between past and present events, and is theatrically fluid — magical even. Is that an idea that was in the play at the beginning, or did you discover it along the way?
Sean Grennan: I was interested in both halves of this story and wanted them in play right away. I hit on the idea of having the early [scenes] seem a little like the perceptions you have coming out of anesthesia; fractured, hazy, etc. I think that served the piece well especially as there are some elements that are a little like solving a mystery.
World premieres are rare in summer stock. How did the Peninsula Players world premiere come about? Can you share a little of your history with the company?
Sean Grennan: Greg Vinkler, the artistic director, attended a reading of Making God Laugh in New York a few years back. At the time, I had a lot of people saying nice things, but no productions. After that, he and I stayed in touch, traded notes about rewrites and the like and then he decided to program it. It went well, critically, as well as setting some box office records [at Peninsula Players], so everyone was happy. Then when I wrote this we happened to be in touch and I had him attend another reading, and even participate as an actor. It was an early draft but he saw potential, apparently, and programmed it.
I’ve loved working here because it’s kind of like art camp. They put you up in some pretty nice cabins, feed you very good meals and you can just stroll through the woods with your dog and go to rehearsal. They’re the oldest resident stock company in the country at 79 years and they have the bugs worked out. But I take your point, they haven’t done many new shows. I think their audiences are pretty sharp and want to be challenged as much or more than just entertained. They’ll certainly do some crowd-pleasing material in a season — in fact, I’m performing in The Mystery of Irma Vep here in August. That should be interesting, if I survive it. It’s huge!
What did you learn in rehearsals? What are you learning from the run?
Sean Grennan: From rehearsals I learned the usual things: “You said that already,” “You need to be clearer, “That may make sense to you, Sean, but not to any other sentient being,” etc. From the run: Not to be afraid of not constantly joking! To just keep trying to follow the truth and keep the story clipping. And also that people can figure out a lot from a few clues.
Was there time for “table work” in a summer stock rehearsal schedule?
Sean Grennan: We had extra rehearsal time because the show was new and it was very valuable. We used it around the table for a while and I was there all the time to answer questions, tweak, etc. I felt like we got a whole lot done in the time we had.
You’re also acting there this summer. Do you have brain power to address a post-Peninsula draft or do you feel the play is set? Is there any opportunity to tweak lines in the run, or is it frozen?
Sean Grennan: I’m acting in And Then There Were None and The Mystery of Irma Vep. The latter may kill me. I’ve straightened out the [Tin Woman] script and sewn it together into what’s on the stage now. There have been a few tweaks during the run, but at this point, not really much. When the dust settles, I’ll look at it again for rewrites, but I probably won’t get to that while I’m acting. I have the attention span of a toddler. The good thing is that I have a few theatres already interested in it at this writing and my publisher, Playscripts, Inc., thinks it’s my best piece and will be handling it accordingly. I don’t know where it’s going, ultimately. I’m O.K. with that.
You have a history with some of the company members of The Tin Woman. Did you ask for them, specifically? Can you share some of that history?
Sean Grennan: Well, I have a ton of history with one of them, my sister, Erin Noel Grennan. Kind of known her all her life. She and I have also worked together before, once on an early piece of mine called, Luck!, and she also premiered Making God Laugh. Additionally, Joel Hatch is one of my very best pals in the world. His wife, Carol Kuykendall is also in the show and we’re very old, close friends. I’ve known Kristine Thatcher for years and have had a serious “talent crush” on her for all of that time. This is our first chance to work together and I could not be more thrilled and honored. She and Tom Mula, our director, are also writers so they’ve been great sounding boards and counselors though everything. As for Erica Elam and Matt Holzfeind, they are pretty wonderful and I want to work with them again and again.
What’s coming up for you?
Sean Grennan: I have several productions of Making God Laugh this year and a small sprinkling of some of my other shows. I believe Making God Laugh has had about 20 productions, with a few more in the offing. My musical Married Alive! [with composer Leah Okimoto] has currently had more productions, at about 35. I’ve recently given four of them, including The Tin Woman, to my publisher so I’m very optimistic about bookings.