Tiny Beautiful Things – Review by Tom Nissley

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a beautiful documentary, describing how a woman named Cheryl Strayed took over an advice column published on an Internet site from Steve Almond in 2010. He had been using the signature, ‘Sugar,’ and so did she, but readers quickly realized that ‘Sugar’ was not the same as he/she used to be and bombarded her with comments and inquiries about who she really was, what gave her the right to say the things she did, and whether she and the letters she answered could possibly be real?

Excerpts from the Advice Column became a book called “Tiny Beautiful Things” in 2012, and then it was adapted into a play, first seen in 2016, at the Public Theater. Nia Vardalos, Marshall Heyman, and Thomas Kail prepared the script, and Ken Rus Schmoll is the Director of the production at Long Wharf.

The action of the play – one act only – takes place in the yard of a handsome single house, designed by Kimie Nishikawa. The lighting design by Yuki Nakase, and sound design by Leah Gelpe add important background for the production. Costumes were designed by Arnulfo Maldonado. But essentially what we’re watching in this play is three cast members (Paul Pontrelli, Elisabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati) who recite letters asking for advice, or perhaps comments, and one more actor, Cindy Cheung, who plays the writer known as ‘Sugar.’ The letter writers all have solid voices, especially the two men, which makes it easy to follow their requests. At times it was not as easy to catch all the words of Ms. Cheung’s responses, but for the most part it was possible to discern the sensitive and generous words of sympathy or empathy or permission to be brave and especially to be forgiving, even of yourself.

Sugar’s responses to the series of letters took on amazing depth because she shared her own problems and difficult times of her life even as she urged her readers to rise above their own stuck places. Missing the moment of her mother’s death, vivid abuse by a grandfather, getting out of a marriage that wasn’t working. Loving her children.

The closing line of the play is Sugar’s remembering how, during a time in her life when she was using heroin, a little girl on a subway, with two balloons, offered her one. She didn’t accept it, because she was too ashamed of her life, and didn’t believe, messed up as she was, that she deserved to have any tiny beautiful things. But that was not so!!! A powerful goodbye to an attentive audience. I loved the play and commend it fully to your schedule.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre February 21, 2019