As I ponder how to write about this moving emotional piece of theatre, Tiny Beautiful Things, I find myself tempted as I’m sure others will, of writing it in the same letter format as the book, and as adapted here by Nia Vardalos and directed by Thomas Kail at the Public Theater. I’m going to resist that temptation. As fun as it sounds. Instead, I’m going to write as Cheryl Strayed herself might. From a personal place and perspective, which I always hope is as connecting as this theatrical piece is.
The book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, one that I have not read (nor, if I’m being honest, ever heard of), is a collection of letters compiled from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously for the The Rumpus online literary magazine. Strayed’s writing seems to be coming from a very personal and intimate perspective. She tries to tell a story from a similar emotional space inside and in her own mysterious way, circles back to a profound connection to the original plea for guidance. To experience Strayed and in turn Vardalos’s work here reminds me of the desirous place when I’m drawn to watch scenes from movies or TV that I know can trigger tears instantly. I don’t need to watch all of Terms of Endearment anymore to find myself in tears. That moment when Shirley MacLaine comes back to the motel after being with her terminal ill daughter to find Jack Nicholson waiting on the steps for her. Tears. Instantly. The preamble to get there isn’t needed anymore. But the ‘pleasure’ of being pulled into that space and experiencing that emotion is so satisfying. This show packs the same surprisingly spontaneous moments of emotional connectivity and if that simple story about Terms of Endearment (or whatever your equivalent is) resonated at all with you, than you will find yourself drawn in to Tiny Beautiful Things as much as I was. In waves.
Vardalos has stayed pretty close to the source material in the staging and adaptation. This group of gifted actors (Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, Natalie Woolams-Torres), portraying all sorts of characters reaching out for advice from ‘Sugar’, pulls us skillfully and honestly into their stories and predicaments. It’s almost shocking how we can be so thoroughly engaged so quickly into these personal pleas for help and guidance. And then there is Vardalos, responding with such a look of empathy and questioning, that we instantly join her in her complete desire to be of use. There is a powerful real moment of silence before she speaks, when so much transpires across her face as she searches her conscience for a real thing to say in response. Not so much the right thing nor the best thing, but the most true and pure thing that she can grab from her personal experience. As a psychotherapist in the real world, I completely resonated with that quagmire that we often find ourselves, and I have to give it to Strayed that she does find the most beautiful poetic connections within herself to help another. It feels utterly genuine and sometimes profound.
It’s a beautiful piece of work Vardalos has created, not tiny at all, although as a ‘play’, I struggled with the forward drive and momentum. Overall, there are many moments that have a strong deep emotionality and an intensity that can’t be denied. This show hits us like waves in the ocean, huge intense moments of surprising power, followed by a lull as we wait for the next.
The lulls though are distracting, and I couldn’t help myself thinking and waiting for the next, wondering if this next question/response was going to be as intoxicating as the last, or was it going to be the final exchange. I questioned, in the quiet lulls, whether the cycles were starting to become tedious or repetitive but then the next inquiry begins, and their story grabs hold. I would find myself thoroughly invested once 90-1again. I also kept wondering, was this one going to be the story that prompts Sugar to incorporate the title of the show into her response? I knew that this would signal the end, and I was right. And even though I wasn’t surprised by this theatrical construct, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed either. It felt right, and honorable. The ending does miraculously wrap this up with a lovely bow. Is it too neat and perfect in the end? Maybe, but I didn’t mind. Vardolas had me under her spell.
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