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A CurtainUp Review
Tiny Beautiful Things
By Elyse Sommer
Though the internet made it possible for anyone to hand out or exchange advice about deeply personal concerns with perfect strangers, it has also given rise to its own breed of experts. By experts I don't mean practicing therapists, ministers or rabbis, but writers. As columnists they are essentially inter-active performers who know how to use words to project a sympathetic personality. More often than not, the tone of the exchanges leans towards playful.
Probably #1 on the A-list of on-line gurus is Cheryl Strayed a.k.a. Dear Sugar. Her column has had an amazing success, with an after life beyond its beginnings on the Rumpus.net website.
Actually, Dear Sugar was originally conceived and written by free-lance writer Steve Almond. Like so much internet writing, it was an unpaid gig. But that didn't deter Strayed, a published-for-pay writer, from accepting Almond's invitation to take it over. It turned out to be a wise and satisfying investment of her time and talent.
Strayed's approach to the column was not a straightforward "here's what you should do" answer but to share her own experiences with similar and often horrendous issues. She tended to focus on letters with big, serious problems which didn't call for feel good answers (sexual abuse, the untimely death of a loved one, indefensible cruelty by a parent). Even when suggesting to-do steps that could help a letter writer they came with no guarantees. What Strayed did offer was understanding through her own recollection of trips down sad, difficult roads as well as serious missteps (drugs, infidelity ) topped by nurturing hurrahs for whatever the reader did and will do to survive.
The Strayed style of advice giving turned each answer into a small memoir. The internet columns eventually led to a collection of the letters in a book entitled Tiny Beautiful Things.
The book's wide ranging, no-holds-barred content and style took the Dear Sugar letters out the pink collar ghetto genre. One of the men who picked it up was Wall Street Journal's "Heard and Scene" columnist Marshall Heyman. He was smitten and passed it on to director Thomas Kail, who in turn passed it on to the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis and actress/writer Nia Vardalos (star of the film, My Greek Wedding)
As Strayed saw beyond the standard Agony Aunt type of advice, so Heyman, Kail and Vardalos saw beyond the format of her book. The result is Tiny Beautiful Things, the play now at the Public's Shiva Theater.
Before I go any further, a truth to tell moment: I always enjoy Oskar Eustis's program notes. But I felt he went overboard in his concluding paragraph for Tiny Beautiful Things: "I don't attend church. I don't believe in God but I believe in Cheryl Strayed."
Yes, she does write well and sensitively about difficult to cope with events in life. Her exchange with a father whose son was killed in an accident, reminded me of my own despair when my son was seriously injured in an automobile accident. That event didn't make me more religious and had Strayed been writing then, neither would it have turned her into any sort of substitute deity for me.
To take my truth to tell moment a step further, I wasn't all that smitten with Strayed's best-selling book. This mountain of epistolary quandaries about romantic and familial relationships only held my attention intermittently so that I did the book reader's version of fast forwarding a taped TV program and skipped quite a few of the letters. Sure, the topics covered were varied, full of emotion engaging problems and smartly titled. But there was an unavoidable, at least to me, repetetiveness to the format.
And that brings me to the play that team Heyman, Kail and Vardalos created. No sitting at a desk reading letters, occasionally getting up and moving around a bare bones set for Ms. Vardalos as the star and stand-in for Strayed. Instead, the Public's smallest theater's stage has been given a richly detailed set by Rachel Hauck that gives Sugar a kitchen, dining room, living room and entry way to roam around in and busy herself with her chores as a mommy as well as columnist.
Most importantly, to avoid the stasis common to many solo plays, this Sugar is not alone on stage. Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams-Torres are there with her to make the advice seekers as well as Sugar visible to the audience. Instead of having one actor at a time read a letter to be addressed by Sugar, there are times when all three actors deliver different versions of related issues. They also frequently interrupt Sugar's replies with their own comments so that a sense of these people really talking to each other. Because these three actors are so good they bring these epistolary exchanges closer to creating the real human connection for which the internet will never be a substitute.
Vardalos not only steps into Ms. Strayed's shoes with grace and feeling but has done a good job of trimming, adding and reorganizing some of the material. The book's most heart-wrenching segment, "The Obliterated Place," rounds out the 75-minute piece with a get-out-your-handkerchief moment, but makes the wet eyes to dry with a lighter add-on finale.
Tiny Beautiful Things didn't send me back to my book to read all the exchanges I skipped through. I'm not sure it was entirely necessary to move it from page to stage since the pay-offs are more tiny pleasures than what's usually on offer at the Public Theater. But it did manage to hold my attention so if there were a gadget to fast forward a stage play, I wouldn't have used it for this handsomely staged and warmly performed version.
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Tiny Beautiful Things
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos.
Adapted for the Stage by Vardalos
Directed by Kail.
Cast: Nia Vardalos as Sugar; also Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, Miriam Silverman, Natalie Woolams-Torres.
Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck.
Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller.
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter.
Sound Design by Jill BC Du Boff.
Stage Manager: Diane Divita
Running Time: 75 minutes
Public Theater's Shiva Theater From 11/15/16; opening 12/07/17; closing 12/31/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at December 2nd press Preview
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