BWW Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS: 'Dear Sugar' Dispenses Joy at MRT
Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, Adapted for Stage by Nia Vardalos, Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos; Directed by Jen Wineman; Scenic Designer, Tim Mackabee; Costume Designer, Leon Dobkowski; Lighting Designer, Marie Yokoyama; Sound Designer, Emily Auciello; Production Stage Manager, Maegan A. Conroy
Performances through October 6 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Tiny Beautiful Things is a play that will make you laugh, tug at your heartstrings, teach you to appreciate little things while not sweating the small stuff, and, ultimately, make you glad you decided to spend 85 minutes at the theater. The season-opener at Merrimack Repertory Theatre is based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar," and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Living up to their newly-minted mission statement at the starting gate, Merrimack "bring(s) joy to our art form" with the dramatization of real letters submitted to Strayed's advice column and her empathetic, down-to-earth responses.
Jen Wineman directs a cohesive quartet of actors, all but one of whom play multiple roles. Lori Prince (Sugar) is in the spotlight as the columnist, but Nael Nacer (Letter Writer 1), Caroline Strang (Letter Writer 2), and Shravan Amin (Letter Writer 3) represent the many voices out there in the cyber world who come to view Sugar as an integral part of their lives. For no apparent reason (at first), they confide their rants, raves, secrets, and doubts to this entity without knowing her name, her gender, or her qualifications. Sugar's responses are often peppered with her own life experiences that relate to whatever the writer has asked about, allowing her audience to lower their guard and engage with her. She reasons that it is better that she not disclose the aforementioned personal details so that race, gender, or age do not disqualify her in the minds of her readers.
Playwright Vardalos stresses that the letters are real, although they have been edited or consolidated for inclusion in the play. The notable achievement is that Tiny Beautiful Things overcomes what could be a mundane litany of questions and answers. Part of the reason for that is the depth and breadth of revelations in the letters, but also that Wineman's blocking keeps the actors in motion, never allowing for the staging to feel stagnant. When a scene requires stillness, it becomes more dramatic and intense by contrast to the overall fluidity and captures the audience's attention like a powerful magnet. One such episode involves Nacer's extraordinary portrayal of a grieving father whose only son was killed by a drunk driver. You could hear a pin drop during his monologue, each statement preceded by a number, and Sugar's reply that addresses his points in kind, telling him that you go on by going on. It is a prime example of her advice being simple, but never simplistic.
Amin gives depth to a transgender writer's story, trying to figure out how to deal with parents who had rejected them, and Strang captures what it feels like to be stuck in a tug-of-war of her own emotions. All three of the letter writers do an incredible job of differentiating among the many characters they play, either by altering their physicality or changing their tone of voice. They remain onstage watching whomever is engaged with Sugar, and they are all in during the conversations between the writer and the columnist, regarding each other as if they were discussing in person rather than in cyberspace. Prince's performance is a delight to watch as she makes her character endearing and non-threatening.
Scenic designer Tim Mackabee has devised a set that affords great flexibility and fluidity. There is a galley kitchen upstage center with stairs used frequently to go down to a living room, a laundry area, and a patio space. As the action flows from one area to another, lighting designer Marie Yokoyama brings it into focus. Lighting alters and music underscores scene changes (Emily Auciello, sound design), and Leon Dobkowski's costume designs reinforce the concept of Sugar's casual, home office, and the nondescript nature of her audience. In effect, what they are wearing has little to do with who the letter writers are, but rather that they could be anyone.
Part of the appeal of Tiny Beautiful Things is that the letter writers could be anyone and share relatable stories. Some of the credit goes to the anonymity provided by the internet, but these brave souls are willing to put their personal details out there, to ask for help, and allow us to reap the benefits when Sugar responds. Cheryl Strayed wrote the "Dear Sugar" column for two years (2010-2012), and later did it as a podcast with Steve Almond for four years (ending September, 2018). Seeing it performed onstage by this tight ensemble is a vivid, uplifting experience that is bound to touch everyone who sees it.