Ross Valley Players’ comic drama compels critic to laugh and cry

Sammy (Isabelle Grimm, second from left) leads awkward grace for her dad, Hank (Keith Jefferds, left), and mom, Alice (Ellen Brooks), as the spirit of her dead brother, Jack (Jesse Lumb), joins in. Photo by Robin Jackson.

“The Tin Woman,” which pinpoints the mental and physical anguish of a heart transplant recipient, initially made me squirmingly uncomfortable.

But the Ross Valley Players’ comic drama grew on me until I loved it.

After suckering me in joke by joke.

My early nervous laughter was followed by my unshackled cackles during the second act.

Coupled with throbbing aches and a rivulet of tears stemming from carefully staged awkward moments reflecting the painful loss of a loved one.

Sean Grennan has superbly constructed his ultimately uplifting script, giving each of the six cast members an opportunity to scintillate.

And they do.

Ellen Brooks is amazing as Alice, a stoic mourning mother whose anguish and anger are alternately squelched and snarkily explosive.

And Keith Jefferds is heartbreaking as Hank, Alice’s husband whose grief for Jack, their flawed, 36-year-old son who’s been killed in an auto accident, bleeds through his deadpan expressions.

Tremendous, too, are Joanna Cretella, who portrays Joy, the guilt-ridden recipient, with just the right degrees of prickliness and confusion; Isabelle Grimm, who plays Alice and Hank’s befuddled, airy-fairy pre-school-teaching daughter, Sammy, with perfectly cartoonish behaviors that significantly leaven the play’s solemnity; and Jesse Lumb as Jack, whose constant, mostly silent ghostly onstage presence is transmitted by roving eyes and restless pacing.

And Sumi Narendran Cardinale, who doubles as Joy’s nurse and her bff, Darla, is fittingly nuanced in those small but successful supporting roles.

The plot’s not complicated.

Joy, wallowing in self-pity and anti-rejection pills and not sure she’s worthy of a second chance, decides to track down the family of Jack, her heart donor.

Director Michael Barr, who recently helmed “A Streetcar Named Desire” for the Novato Theater Company, has saturated the 105-minute life-affirming show with what the United States needs most now: compassion, honesty and — like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” — yes, as might be expected, heart.

All the while making sure the audience can relate big time to Joy, whom the playwright purposefully, ironically misnamed, and her loud, thumping heartbeat.

In brief pre-opening night comments, Barr admitted that the occasionally surreal, emotion-evoking play “jumps around in style and tone a bit [yet] keeps the audience on edge, in a good way.”

That’s accurate, but I must add that in recent years, the non-Equity Ross Valley Players have become so consistently first-rate they’ve dodged virtually all the traps typically encountered in community theater.

It’s been my pleasure to experience that professionalism.

So, as the old Alka-Seltzer commercial bellowed incessantly, I strongly suggest that you “Try it! You’ll like it.”

“The Tin Woman” will run at The Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross, through June 10. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $12 to $27. Information: or (415) 456-9555 or

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Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →