For years, playwright Sean Grennan’s sister carried around a newspaper clipping about a heart transplant recipient. Over dinner one night, she handed it to him and said in true sibling fashion, “Write this, and have it not suck.”
“It’s one of those things that just caught her eye,” he said of his sister, actress Erin Noel Grennan.
The result was “The Tin Woman,” onstage from Aug. 2 to 26 at the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana.
It’s based on the true story of a woman who receives a heart transplant, but instead of being elated, begins questioning whether or not she deserves this new lease on life. A friend urges her to meet the donor’s family, but could such a meeting truly help mend their broken hearts?
It’s a complex topic that involved researching online and talking with his best friend, who is a psychologist, with people who have gone through the process, and with donor groups.
“The research was interesting and took me down paths I didn’t expect to go, and I’m glad it did,” the Chicago native, 62, said by phone from his home in New York, where he lives with his actress-wife and their dog.
The new routes he discovered kept him from sugarcoating the story.
“It’s like a Facebook meme, to see somebody get a heart transplant and everything’s perfect, but many people are not settled with it,” he said. “Many people have survivor’s guilt, and then the families, while they did a wonderful thing, they’re still grieving. ...
“A lot of people have guilt that someone had to die in order for them to live.”
With such a heavy subject, he knew he needed to infuse the play with lighter moments, as well.
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“Because of what the show is, I knew if I didn’t put some humor in it, it would be two hours of homework,” he said, “and I didn’t want that. So I salted in humor where I could, and it played very well. I think it’s because the emotions are very rich in the show, audiences just needed a break now and then. Just make them laugh, and they’ll get right back to work. ... People get invested in that story that’s a little darker ... and it’s important to let off the accelerator sometimes and let them laugh and let them release.
“I’ve found in the show, in the course of 10 seconds, the audience is laughing and crying,” he said, “so I think you can put humor and darkness right up on each other, and it’s like salted caramel. It works.”
On the advice of a good friend and fellow playwright, Grennan pulled back on giving glib lines to the character of Jack, the donor, who initially spoke to the audience.
In the rewrite, Jack’s presence is felt more on the periphery, in the way people who have lost a loved one still feel that person’s presence.
“As an experiment to myself, I took out everything (Jack) said, except when he’s a memory and people are talking about him. He got much stronger when he was quiet,” Grennan said.
Grennan also encourages cast and crew to comment, taking their notes to heart when revising scripts.
“You have to embrace the whole ‘writing is rewriting’ idea,” he said, but he’s been surprised to sit in on rehearsals and see the effect this particular script has had on cast members.
“I knew the show lived on emotion a lot,” he said. “The cast of the first production was so invested that every day at rehearsal, when we’d do a run-through, they would all have to sit and cry for a while. These are all jaded, cynical people with lots of credits, but they all had to sit and cheer up for a while. It was an amazing, passionate buy-in by people.”
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He’s grateful for audience feedback, especially when viewers who have lived these experiences tell him he got it right.
He hopes audiences find their own heartbeat in the show.
Citing a recent article about the lack of organ donors in New York City, he said to his wife: “If this show gets one person to sign their donor card, and that turns into a lifesaving situation, then I am well-paid. That’s all I need.”
WHAT: “The Tin Woman”
WHERE: Old Creamery Theatre Main Stage, 39 38th Ave., Amana
WHEN: Aug. 2 to 26; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
TICKETS: $31.50 adults, $19.50 students; box office, (319) 622-6262 or Oldcreamery.com
EXTRA: Friday post-performance talks with organ donor recipients, the American Heart Association and experts