I saw Tiny Beautiful Things first, and then twice, at The Public Theater in the East Village of New York City. I remember as I went to the second viewing, solidifying myself in advance for all those upcoming emotional waves that I knew would be crashing in around me. The writing, adapted to the stage by the incredibly gifted Nia Vardalos from the book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugarby Cheryl Strayed, was the intoxicating source for that symptomatic large tight lump that would develop, most assuredly in my throat when watching this play. It couldn’t be helped, as the energy and the empathy entwined in the ordinary miraculousness of the play intense would find its place inside my very being. This third time around the living room, while watching the George Street Playhouse‘s filmed production of “Tiny Beautiful Things” streaming through May 23rd, the engagement was as solid as it was before. Tugging at my heart and healing my soul, well, almost as good and strong as I had experienced it before.
Directed by David Saint (George Street’s American Son), with cinematography and editing by Michael Boylan (“Pixelated Heroes“), Cheryl Strayed’s writing continues to bubble up distinctly from this most personal and raw of places, giving a perspective that resonates clearly outwards and in. Vardalos, who co-conceived the play with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail and starred in The Public Theater‘s production, radiated the inner vulnerability with wide open arms, something I continue to aspire to as both a writer and a psychotherapist. Her connection to the material and to us was as deep and delicious as the stories that unfolded before us. This time round, with Laiona Michelle (Broadway’s Amazing Grace) in the lead role at the George Street Playhouse, the desire to be raw, open, and honest is as clearly defined as before. Her curious and engaging voice tenderly finds the broken parts within, while reaching for the desire to heal all of our collective wounds through an esoteric idea of love, that “puny word…[that] has the power to stand alone.”
The book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, one that I have still not read, is a collection of letters compiled from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously for The Rumpus online literary magazine. Her writing comes from such a personal place that it’s almost impossible not to be woven into the fabric of her being. The intimate connecting perspectives wash over us like waves that are both complicated and intensely difficult to navigate clearly. She ‘advises’ by relating, unpacking a story from a similar emotional space inside herself, sometimes completely shame-inducing, yet somehow, in a most mysterious way, she finds her way back, circling around to a profound space that reconnects to the original plea for guidance. We sit with that feat, in utter amazement.
To experience Strayed in this piece and place of writing through Vardalos’ strong structuring, and in turn, Michelle’s attuned voice is an experience that continues to surprise, although it really shouldn’t. The engagements within this strange offering easily take us to those historical emotionally vivid connections where the ‘pleasure’ of being pulled into those tear-stained scenarios is ever so satisfying. The show packs that same spontaneous diad of connectivity, giving us an in to all those Tiny Beautiful Things with an ease and an open-armed sincerity that forever takes us over the edge, even during the third go-round.
Riding those big well-crafted waves made up of fear and longing, Michelle finds communion with her cast of three; Kally Duling (Broadway/National Tour’s Fun Home), John Bolger (George Street’s Good People), and the very connecting Ryan George (Paradise Factory’s Rush). They portray all sorts of characters with different levels of success, reaching out for “Sugar” through waves of distress for advice and support. They question “Dear Sugar” for her guidance, for her help, or sometimes demand to know more about her skills, her credentials, and even her name, – “WTF“, ya know? – all the while pulling us skillfully and honestly into their stories and predicaments with an intricate ease. It still shocks me how some of these stories dig in so quickly, bringing me to tears because of their high-stakes experiences and their honest conflict. They wander through her home environment as if in commune, solidly inhabiting the mind of Strayed while also hanging around drinking her wine and helping her with dinner.
It’s beautifully staged, open to the air, and full of light and attachment, thanks to some fine work by art director Helen Tewskbury and costume designer Lisa Zinni (George Street’s Bad Dates). It sometimes rings flat or forced, in quick cuts in time and space, and I do wish there were less literal nods and haphazard editing. The flow of the day into the evening could have deepened the dynamic, bringing more mystical renderings to the emotional canvas, but as is, I never got a sense of continuity or of some sort of visual emotional arc that could encompass and direct the entirety of the play. It jumps around, from light to dark and back again, feeling more like snippets than the continual building of thunderous waves crashing louder and louder onto the shore as night approaches. The original music and sound design by Scott Killian, with sound editing by Ryan Rumery, is generally enticing, although sometimes overwhelming, getting in the way of the quiet engagement, but the piece as a whole remains strong, even if the medium of film does not heighten or spice up the overall dynamic.
“Do I forgive them, or stay safe?” The question cracks with solid honesty, arriving on the shores of our collective island with a crash. Welcoming the deepest of questions, Michelle’s portrayal unflinchingly responds to each character’s formulation with a look and edge of empathy and questioning. We see spark after spark of connection when each story that reaches her heart and table. Then, with barely a twist of her head, or some look in her eye, we instantly engage with her complete desire to be of use, to facilitate change and the mutual understanding of self. Sometimes the characterizations of the curious borders on simplistic or directorial overkill, but even in those brief moments of disconnect, there is power in the silence, especially when she is given the directorial space, to proceed with uncertainty. She searches her conscience for a real thing to say in response, struggling, while making a salad, to find the most true and pure thing that she can grab hold of from her life and her experiences. Sometimes in those quiet moments of discovery, she unwraps authenticity in something that is brilliant and possibly, counterintuitive. She finds parallels in those deep self-revealing stories of pain, grief, and shame, giving them out to these souls honestly and with weight. Completely generous-of-heart, she unpackes purposefully the small and capital “T” traumas with a wise, expert eye hoping for connection, deliverance, and intuitive relatability.
As a psychotherapist in the real world, I completely resonate with that epic quagmire of aloneness that we often feel and want to flee, and I have to give kudos to Strayed and Vardalos for discovering the delicate balance between revealing and withholding. In that astute mix, she discovers the beautiful poetry of radical sincerity, all in the pure hope to help another out of despair. It feels utterly genuine and sometimes profound. It’s a not-so-tiny beautiful piece of work Vardalos has created here, not insignificant or small in the least. The two writers together had me under their spell once again within minutes of beginning the stream. On the third viewing, I found myself trusted the piece more, knowing that it would deliver one wave after another, even if some moments felt too simple. This time I waited with bated breath for the letter that was more of a list. That moment, so beautifully performed at The Public Theater by Teddy Cañez, was the single most elegant and devastating moment in Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s the tenderest of tales told, and although it didn’t hit me as hard as I had hoped in this film, the tears of the reply floated strongly on the rippling unsteady water. This isn’t a tiny piece of theatre at all. It is an ocean of big powerful waves, beautiful and intense, crashing most stunningly onto our emotional shore. I was glad, once again, to sit and stream the waves coming in one after the other, even if the overall force didn’t match the storm that was on the stage. Yet. All one can and really should say, especially to those who have yet to experience these Tiny Beautiful Things, is “Yeah, I’m in.” So in. Signed, not confused or surprised in the slightest.
“The rich and layered comfort food which Sugar doles out to her readers questing for help is the perfect sustenance for the soul we all need right now”, said George Street Playhouse Artistic Director, David Saint. Strayed, Vardalos, and “Sugar” beautifully remind us to sit up and take in all of those Tiny Beautiful Things that wash up on our shores, and find their way to our communal table. So we can understand the ups and downs of life, which can be forever sad, confusing, or frustrating, with the hope that we can find recovery. Even when we are broken, we can be loved and embraced, finding the courage in that connection to ask the most difficult questions imaginable. And be open to the response.
Tickets for George Street Playhouse’s Tiny Beautiful Things are available for $33 per household at GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org. Streaming will run through May 23, 2021. Don’t miss your chance.