Tiny Beautiful Things
At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a dramatized Ann Landers/Dear Abby advice column. The play, now receiving its Chicago premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater, is based on online advice columns written by a woman who identifies herself only as Sugar. The letters, and Sugar’s responses, appeared from 2010 through 2012 in an online literary magazine called the Rumpus.
The play, which opened in New York City in 2016, is assembled by committee. It originated as a book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” success. Vardalos shares co-conceived credits with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail.
At the beginning of the play, we meet Strayed as a struggling writer who takes on the advice column at no salary. Her column quickly caught on as a series of dialogues between the author and the men and women who come to her for advice about their emotional and personal problems. Sugar isn’t just a sounding board. She has gone through some tough personal difficulties throughout her life, including drug addiction and sexual promiscuity. Sugar puts herself in the middle of the agonies that flood her email and “Tiny Beautiful Things” often is more about the author than the people who come to her for guidance and succor or just to relieve the pressure of their own troubled existences.
Sugar deals with the usual topics that sustain advice columns. There are conflicts between the correspondents and their mothers or fathers. There is brutal tales of sexual abuse, issues of sexual identity, low self esteem and loneliness, marital crises, and loss. But Sugar makes love as the common theme throughout the show, the need for it and the search for it. Some of the communications are trivial bleat and others authentically tragic. The predominant tone is serious but there are shards of humor, like a communication from a 35-year old woman being kept by a lover and paid $1,000 a week. She asks Sugar whether the $1,000 is tax deductible.
The play’s site is a coffee house and the time is the present. The cast consists of Sugar and an abundant number of anonymous characters grouped together only as Letter Writer 1, 2, and 3. The letter writers fire off their dilemmas nonstop (the play runs about 80 minutes with no intermission) and Sugar responds with her own proposed solutions, which can be detailed or ambiguous recommendations amounting to simply telling the correspondent to suck it up.
But Sugar does take the inquiries seriously and if some of the letters are frivolous, others command respect. The most moving exchange comes near the end of the play when a man describes his overwhelming grief as he tries to deal with the loss of his only son, killed by a drunken driver. The bereft father’s suffering is almost unbearable to hear, Sugar responding with compassion and understanding and some wisdom.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is almost 100 percent talk. Sugar and the three letter writers move about the coffee house interior, just to change positions on the stage and give the production some visual variety. None of the four actors connect physically as they shower Sugar with their anguish and anger and confusion and yearning. So in spite of the variety of cries from the heart Sugar receives, the play has a certain monotonous feeling, the faceless letter writers unloading their assorted unhappinesses and moving on to the next case.
The play will likely be of most interest to spectators who check out the advice columns with their daily newspapers first thing in the morning. The capacity to find other people’s miseries interesting and even entertaining is human. “Tiny Beautiful Things” supplies a large concentrated dose of these miseries, and if one misery doesn’t grab you, just wait a few seconds for the next one that might be more involving.
Ultimately, the success of the play resides in the viewer’s willingness to eavesdrop on each letter writer’s problems. My tolerance for an evening devoted to such problems, even during a concise 80 minutes, is limited. My tolerance was further tested by the opening night audience reaction that typically plagues so many productions in Chicagoland, with a claque of spectators laughing too loudly at things that aren’t funny, applauding too often, and trying to be the first to jump to their feet at the end of the evening to give the show a standing ovation, which has become a pestilential ritual in local play going.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” may not be my cup of theatrical tea, but I have nothing but admiration for the performers who move from letter to letter with credibility and respect for the material, however lugubrious it may occasionally be. As Sugar, Janet Ulrich Brooks (who never disappoints) holds the production together beautifully, sympathetically counseling each letter writer. The writers are played by Eric Slater, Jessica Dean Turner, and August Forman, all superbly shifting gears from character to character. Slater’s sustained cry of pain as the grief stricken father is a remarkable piece of persuasive acting.
The production has been directly smoothly and unobtrusively by Vanessa Stallings, who is becoming a valued A list director (with terrific productions of “A Shayna Maidel” and “The Wolves” in her resume). Courtney O’Neill designed the all-purpose coffee house set. Theresa Ham designed the costumes, Rachel Levy the lighting, and Jeffrey Lynn the sound design and original music.
Ultimately, this is the kind of play people will like who like this kind of play. I would have preferred one of those cutting edge new plays that have made Victory Gardens such a major contributor to the area theater scene under Chay Yew’s artistic leadership. Still, the acting is exemplary and the material often affecting. If that is faint praise, so be it.
‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ gets a rating of
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs through October 13 at the Victory Gardens Theater. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $31 to $65. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com September 2019
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