Review: “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf Theatre

  • Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic

Here’s the thing, the night before I was supposed to see “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf Theatre, I started to feel ill. A little nauseous, fatigued and achy. Even a few hours before curtain, I was unsure if I’d feel up to going. But, as it turns out, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a theatrical Balm of Gilead. I’m not exactly saying it has curative properties. No play holds those powers…not even “Hamilton.” But the moving “Tiny Beautiful Things” is like a hug, a therapy session and a good cleansing cry all at once. It’s a rare thing for a play of substance to make you feel better upon leaving than when you walked in. “Tiny” does just that.

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Based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling compilation of the “Dear Sugar” advice column she ran for two years, “Tiny Beautiful Things” has been lovingly adapted by Nia Vardalos (of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame), with creative input from Thomas Kail and Marshall Heyman. I haven’t read the original book, but I’d guess that a good 99% of the play is word-for-word Strayed’s columns. Thankfully, Vardalos hasn’t shoe-horned in a plot; the structure is nothing more than four actors reciting letters to and from Sugar, Strayed’s agony aunt alter-ego. Yet, it all works. The writing is so powerful, gorgeously crafted and universally applicable that a more pronounced theatrical structure would just be a distraction.

Cindy Cheung strikes exactly the right balance as Sugar. She’s vulnerable yet feisty, a survivor of abuse and drug addiction who has found a balanced and rewarding life on the other side. Even when reciting carefully worded, metaphoric passages, Cheung feels completely authentic and sincere. Joining her are Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos and Brian Sgambati, who act the voices of her many letter-writers. Sgambati has a meaty monologue near the play’s end as a grieving father, yet all three have beautiful moments to shine and never over-play their roles.  

Director Ken Rus Schmoll makes a myriad of smart, small decisions but having all four actors stay on stage during the entire, uninterrupted 75-minute running time is one of my favorites. They act as specters and spectators for Sugar, always in sight but out of arm’s reach. Only in one heartbreaking moment does Sugar physically interact with her correspondents.

Schmoll also wisely chose to stage the play on the lawn of Strayed’s house rather than inside it. Kimie Nishikawa’s large, realistic set looks like any nondescript suburban house you’d find in New Haven County with a picnic table, patchy grass and bird feeders hanging from the porch (Yuki Nakase’s magnificent lighting and Leah Gelpe’s unobtrusive suburban soundscape also do wonders). You can even see Sugar washing dishes through the kitchen window during the pre-show announcements. Not just is the setting universal and warm, but it subconsciously speaks to a truth running through the play: Strayed may use her own life experience in writing Sugar, but the two share somewhat different identities. Here, we only glimpse the real Strayed’s life through the windows and the bric-a-brac, like a soccer ball belonging to her unseen child, on the lawn.

Though the staging is immaculate and smart without being showy, the real star of “Tiny Beautiful Things” is Strayed’s writing. Here is where I would normally insert a few of my favorite quotes, but that proves nearly impossible unless I could cut-and-paste the entire script. The stories – from cheating spouses and abuse survivors, lovelorn twentysomethings and grief-stricken parents – cover a lot of big, universal topics. The answers are always moving, funny, sharp, useful and self-deprecating. Strayed perfectly uses her own checkered past to illustrate various points without ever being indulgent. Each are a gift, although one particular letter from a transgender male stands out, as does the painful response to a letter that simply read “what the f*ck?”

A play like “Tiny Beautiful Things” is simple in concept but difficult to pull off. Yet Vardalos and the team at Long Wharf do so flawlessly. The running time and pace are perfect, the performances are extremely well calibrated and the script, despite deep and upsetting themes, never feels dour or heavy-handed. In her column, Sugar found a way to translate individual stories into an interconnected narrative about the perilous path through happiness, pain, grief and celebration we all walk as humans. The play does the exact same. The fact that Cheung, a short-haired Asian actress, looks nothing like the real Strayed delivers the same lesson on universality you get from having a grown, Hispanic man be the voice of a white, teenage girl. There’s a reason, too, the house lights stay on for the first few moments of the play and turn back on before the last words; the audience is also part of that narrative.

Truth be told, “Tiny Beautiful Things” isn’t the kind of play I’d have seen if I wasn’t writing about it for OnStage. I’ve never had an interest in advice columns or self-help. Even the clip-art-looking poster suggests a touchy-feely Nancy Meyers kinda deal, which isn’t this particular critic’s cup of tea. But I was wrong. “Tiny Beautiful Things” is one of the more poignant, lovely, thoughtful, life-affirming shows I’ve seen in a long time. It’s true that the read-aloud form can be a bit limiting (I’m not jockeying for a “Wear Sunscreen: The Musical”), but at this exact moment in my life and the turbulent world around me, “Tiny Beautiful Things” was just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes it’s not a particularly fancy feat of pharmacology that makes you feel better but a big bowl of chicken soup – simple, honest, heartfelt and homemade – that does the trick. A tiny beautiful thing indeed.

 

 “Tiny Beautiful Things” runs at Long Wharf Theatre through March 10. It is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed; adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos; co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos; and directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. The cast includes Cindy Cheung (Sugar), Paul Pontrelli (Letter Writer #3), Elizabeth Ramos (Letter Writer #2),  Brian Sgambati (Letter Writer #1). The creative team includes Kimie Nishikawa (set design), Arnulfo Maldonado (costume design), Yuki Nakase (lighting design), Leah Gelpe (sound design) and Megan Smith (production stage manager). Photos by Deena Nicol-Blifford.