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BWW Review: Actors Bridge Ensemble Returns With Gloriously Heartfelt TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

Director Leah Lowe's Sublime Ensemble Brings Stories to LIfe

BWW Review: Actors Bridge Ensemble Returns With Gloriously Heartfelt TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
Vali Forrister, Josh Inocalla, Clay Steakley and Joy Pointe in Tiny Beautiful Things, directed by Leah Lowe for Nashville's Actors Bridge Ensemble.

After two years in real time - which seems like more than two decades during these weird pandemic times in which we've been living most recently - Nashville's critically and audience-acclaimed theater company Actors Bridge Ensemble is back in the business of producing live theater. And may we say, on behalf of the company's legions of fans: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You have been missed.

And, finally, it seems as if we've rounded the corner toward some sense of normality, a feeling of collective belonging, that has been so awfully missed in your absence.

For Actors Bridge Ensemble provides its audiences and its community the kind of theatrical endeavors that challenge us all to think, compels us all to be better people and entertains us in such a way that is soul-stirring, provocative and oh-so-memorable. Although the company has continued to play a major role in the theater community and maintained its status as one of the finest training grounds for actors in the region, their onstage productions have been sorely missed - and eagerly awaited, if breathlessly anticipated - by everyone who appreciates good theater.

With its production of Tiny Beautiful Things, the stage adaptation by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) of Cheryl Strayed's book of the same name, Actors Bridge returns without missing a beat, it seems, continuing its mission of "telling the stories Nashville needs to hear..."

Brought to life through the thoughtful and focused direction of Leah Lowe and starring a quartet of Nashville actors who seem to have been in the writers' imaginations when the source material was created, Tiny Beautiful Things might seem rather slight and even inconsequential at first blush. It's a dramatization of letters - and responses to same - by a woman who gave of her time as an "advice columnist" (although that reductive designation neglects her actual efforts and contributions) to answer queries posed to her by an unseen, unknown public who followed the column via an online website. And although Cheryl Strayed, known to her audience as "Sugar," gave so charitably and magnanimously (she wrote the column for no pay - a problematic system in these times of which we are all too well aware), never once shirking her duty or downplaying the responsibility of her role, the impact of her shared experience with her readers is immeasurable, so heartfelt and authentic that it seems almost unbelievable.

However, thanks to the efforts of Lowe's fine cast of actors who bring the stage adaptation to life with equal parts charm and candor, along with a fierce sense of honesty and lack of mawkish sentimentality that would have rendered the material facile and overwrought, Actors Bridge's Tiny Beautiful Things is exactly what we (the collective "we" of theater-goers yearning to be moved by the art created expressly for us) need right at this particular moment in time. With our emotions ragged and our hearts on our sleeves, theater audiences want to be triggered to excessive reaction by that which plays out before us onstage.

Thus, we freely admit that had this production of Tiny Beautiful Things come two years earlier - or, we daresay, two months into the future - our response possibly would be quite different from the transportive sense of joy and community that we felt throughout the play's opening night performance and the days and hours since. Quite simply, Tiny Beautiful Things and Actors Bridge have perfect timing.

In Vardalos' stage adaptation, the interactions between "Sugar" and her readers, are presented more or less as they happened in real time. Sugar responds to the letters sent to her with a kind heart, thoughtful consideration and a wonderfully felt sincerity that is refreshingly free of cynicism. A busy wife and mother of two, whose work as a writer allows her to work from home, Sugar regards her assignment with seriousness, affording her correspondents a remarkable sense of respect, which translates perfectly to the stage.

With Vali Forrister as Sugar, she is confronted by her readers in the forms of three actors (Clay Steakley, Joy Pointe and Josh Inocalla) who portray the various letter writers, speaking directly to her, speaking their missives into existence and providing the dramatic give and take that makes Tiny Beautiful Things the stuff of fine theatrical performance that has been the hallmark of everything Actors Bridge Ensemble has produced since 1995. Each letter writer is brought to life vividly and colorfully by the sublime efforts of the actors who, with no fancy tricks or over-the-top special effects, transport us into their own worlds, allowing audience members an opportunity to experience the pangs of self-awareness, to momentarily become the letter writers themselves, in the process.

The interplay between Sugar and her correspondents is one theatrical conceit that works beautifully to capture the essence of their relationships - and immerses audiences into the shared reverie of the pair(s), instead of making them feel like voyeurs. As a result, one cannot help but be moved by what they are witnessing.

The problems considered in Sugar's wide-ranging column are as varied and different as one could possibly imagine, but there is a universality that rings true - there are queries as mundane and superficial as how to deal with a flirtatious dalliance with some random individual, to how to come to terms with the heartbreaking grief of losing one's only son in a horrific traffic incident involving a drunk driver. If one's emotions don't spill out in the form of tears or stifled sobs, it may be attributed to the fact we've all had far too much to grieve ourselves in the past however many months to the point of stoicism. But it is highly unlikely you'll leave the theater unmoved, perhaps even transformed by the genuine sense of hope (and abundant good humor) that pervades the world as a result of seeing Tiny Beautiful Things.

As audiences have genuinely longed for such a moving theatrical offering as the one found in Tiny Beautiful Things, it must be noted that the production is even more portentous thanks to the presence of Vali Forrister, who is cast in a role that could have been written for her. For far too long, her onstage presence has been missed, as she devotes herself to keeping Actors Bridge afloat during these trying times and continuing its artistic mission. And for her performance alone, the event is well worth the price of a ticket. She imbues Sugar with her own genuine heart and soul - so much of her personal life story is akin to that of Sugar's dramatized self - and in so doing she creates a character so beloved and so authentic that it is hard to delineate where Sugar starts and Vali begins, or who possesses the more loving heart. Sugar is a role that Vali Forrister has been destined to play and she provides a lovely respite from the rigors of the real world that we didn't know we needed until she imperceptibly helped us to realize how much she feels like home to our heart.

As the letter writers, Clay Steakley, Joy Pointe and Josh Inocalla put their own heartfelt stamps on each of their myriad of characters, moving seamlessly from one to another, interacting with a palpable intensity that is heartrending in its simplicity, dazzling in its complexity. Each actor gives so much of herself or himself that it's mind-boggling and the overall impact of the ensemble's performance is the stuff of theatrical dreams.

BWW Review: Actors Bridge Ensemble Returns With Gloriously Heartfelt TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS Lowe's direction seems unobtrusive, while somehow remaining ever-present throughout the play, as its action ebbs and flows. She deftly moves her cast around the set (artfully designed by Paul Gatrell and lighted by Breann Wallace) as the plot moves forward naturally to create art that challenges preconceived notions to make it eminently watchable. In fact, almost 72 hours after the fact, we continue to consider the play's impact in countless ways.

Tiny Beautiful Things. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos. Directed by Leah Lowe. Stage managed by Kat Tierney-Smith. Produced by Heather Lefkowitz and Tracy Coats. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble. At the Actors Bridge Studio at Darkhorse Theatre, Nashville. Through Sunday, April 17. For details, go to Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

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