BWW Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS at the Seattle Rep Offers Up Sage Advice
Nia Vardalos' stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's book "Tiny Beautiful Things", currently playing at the Seattle Rep, on the surface may seem like just a string of Strayed's advice columns, but when you peel back the layers and dive deeper it becomes so much more. As we get into the advice, we also get a glimpse into the woman who gave it, painting a portrait of a woman who's been through a lot and come out wiser on the other side.
Strayed (played by Julie Briskman) didn't set out to be an advice columnist, but was a writer with some minor successes. But when she's offered the chance to take on the duties of responding to the questions in an online advice column, she becomes "Sugar", a no-nonsense, straight talking woman with plenty of worldly experience to offer up advice. Advise ranging from sexual fetishes, to the true nature of love, to how to deal with loss, she infuses the responses with her own history, all the while keeping her real identity a secret.
So yes, it is a string of responses but the structure of it from Vardalos as well as from director Courtney Sale expertly keeps it from feeling like a list being read to you as they slip in bits and pieces of Strayed's own personal wisdom. She doesn't just tell someone to tell his girlfriend he loves her; she likens it to her own history. She doesn't just give a stereotypical response to abuse; she bares her soul about her own abuse. All this makes for a quite personal, and heartfelt evening filled with laughter and tears.
But while the stories are quite touching, they'd be nothing without the superb performances from Briskman and the three actors (Chantal DeGroat, Justin Huertas, and Charles Leggett) who take on the roles of her various readers. Briskman manages to keep things upbeat and positive even when conveying the heaviest of subjects but never makes light of them. And her presence and confidence seem to carry the show with ease. DeGroat, as many of the female voices writing in, is given a lot of the harder hitting moments dealing with rape, and incest, and domestic violence, and she manages each one with grace giving each voice a very distinctive feel. Huertas too handles the severe stories with empathy but also brings in some lighter moments wonderfully. But it's Leggett who truly blew everyone away. One minute displaying some brilliant comedic timing with just a look and the next, tearing everyone's heart out with a harrowing letter from a grieving father.
If you let it, "Tiny Beautiful Things" gives us a new perspective on the world and those who share it with us and hopefully a renewed sense of caring for those in need. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the Seattle Rep's production of "Tiny Beautiful Things" a "had to reach for my handkerchief and should have brought a spare for my friend" YAY. A 90-minute emotional ride with humor and heart.