Tiny Beautiful Things, a joint production by Honest Pint Theatre and the Justice Theater Project, explores how Cheryl Strayed, as an anonymous online advice columnist, answered the many “Dear Sugar” letters she received. Inspired by the letters, Strayed penned a New York Times best seller, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and Nia Vardalos, of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, adapted the book for stage as well as played the title role when it premiered at The Public Theater in 2016. Now it has become a series on Hulu.
Vardolas selected and edited letters into a series of mini essays that channel Strayed’s life experiences – good and bad – into compassionate advice for those seeking solace. The “Dear Sugar” column was popular not because she had the answers, but because she wrote with “radical sincerity and open arms.” In composing her replies, Sugar demonstrated how giving yourself to others is a form of salvation: she offers that freely to the letter writers in hopes that this transparency helps them handle their own emotional dilemmas.
In this production, Director David Henderson places the “letter writers” in Sugar’s home. They make themselves comfortable, as though they were relatives or guests who have dropped in for a chat and a drink. Each of the three writers perform multiple characters, changing their voices, tone, and physical movement, to depict a different scenario, a difficult or painful situation. And by having Sugar answer them directly, or turn to face the audience with her replies, the experience becomes more personal and emotionally powerful for the audience.
Susannah Hough as Sugar/Cheryl captures the raw, no-nonsense tone of someone who has had various escapades and problems in life. She never glosses over them, but instead pulls back the curtain and exposes them, showing what each experience taught her. She is an empathetic listener, but also pulls the humor out of situations without ever making fun of the writer. It helps to break up some of the heaviness of the issues and traumas that are presented.
Larry Evans, Nat M. Sherwood, and DJ Brinson portray the trio of letter writers with creative poise. Without changing clothes, they each transform themselves with incredible dexterity, and even convey different personas when they are not directly voicing a letter. Sherwood roams the lived-in, cluttered house of Sugar, pouring a glass of wine, examining books, getting cozy on the couch with a blanket, and seemingly effortlessly, effectively creating a variety of distinctive characters. Evans is superbly convincing in expressing the gut-wrenching pain of losing a child as well as a raging anger at the world. Brinson shines as he morphs from a young girl trying to hide herself to a man confused by love. The ensemble work of this group was as riveting as the stories they told.
Joshua M. Martin’s set design furnished the relevant details about the life of Sugar/Cheryl, from the dog crate to the hula hoop looped over the ironing board to the various cereal and snack boxes on the top of the fridge. Shoes, game pieces, and sports equipment scattered about indicate an active family life, grounding the words of the online advice columnist. The choice of costume designer Denise Schumaker to keep the clothing casual set the right tone and didn’t distract from the different characters each actor portrayed.
Tiny Beautiful Things packs a powerful tsunami of emotional issues into 90 minutes. It’s draining, but also therapeutic. Reconciling the irreconcilable, grappling with unbelievable pain, and surviving are part of life. Yet we are reminded that small things in life, reaching out for them, can bring us solace in the midst of the insurmountable.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs through April 23 at Theatre Raleigh Studios. For more information visit https://www.honestpinttheatre.org/.