In this season premiere production of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, Victory Gardens Theater is dishing out advice with a spoonful of Sugar. Quite literally, the writer Cheryl Strayed (perhaps best known as the author of the memoir WILD) served as an advice columnist using the pen name Sugar for a column she wrote for the online publication THE RUMPUS between 2010-2012. Here, Nia Vardalos translates Strayed’s book of letters into a stage play. The script invites Sugar (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and three Letter Writers (Jessica Dean Turner, August Foreman, and Eric Slater,) all to share the same physical space. Director Vanessa Stalling’s staging often places Sugar centerstage, underscoring the fact that the common thread among the characters is that they have all come to her seeking advice. Courtney O’Neill’s charming and serene modern coffee shop set features a rich teal blue color scheme (one will note that even the props themselves are shades of teal), and costume designer Theresa Ham has the cast dressed in a palette of orange and deep blue. The production’s carefully cultivated color palette not only lends the set design a sense of calm—even though the material of the letters Sugar receives is often anything but—and also conveys that all of the letter writers (and Sugar herself) are united by a common humanity and the answers they seek.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS displays that moving and powerful blend of the ordinary and the profound that we often encounter in our lives. Vardalos cultivates this through her careful selection of Sugar’s letters; while the play doesn’t have a traditional narrative arc, the letters and responses grow more emotionally complex and dig deeper as the show progresses. While that aspect of the play feels quite intentionally crafted, the emotional integrity of the piece remains. I think it would be impossible not to be moved by the contents of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. The wide array of issues about which the writers come to Sugar—and the way she so skillfully answers their queries while simultaneously revealing some intimate, traumatic details from her personal life—is a compelling meld of the specific and universal moments that make up our humanity. The situations presented in the letters Sugar receives are specific to their writers, but the emotions and the bigger picture questions posed therein mean that all audiences should find moments that particularly resonate with them.
The production succeeds all the more because the cast so beautifully delivers the material. Brooks has continually proven herself to be a versatile acting powerhouse, and that remains the case with this latest turn. Brooks’s energy grounds the production, but she also demonstrates how Sugar so deeply feels for those who write to her—and how much she continues to process from her own life. Turner, Foreman, and Slater all deliver varied, emotionally rich performances as they embody the many people coming to Sugar for advice. It’s to their credit that all three actors punctuate each of their characters with distinct energies and always manage to deliver on the emotional center of every letter query they deliver. They each have moments in which they particularly shine. Turner gives a stunning delivery of a letter from a woman who has suffered a miscarriage. Foreman gives an especially keen performance as a transgender letter writer struggling with whether or not to reconcile with their parents. Slater gives a staggering, heartbreaking performance as a father grieving the loss of his son, who has found some small comfort in Sugar’s column as he grapples with his new reality.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS lives in that unique space between the everyday and the extraordinary. The letter writers, and, of course, Sugar herself, are just normal people. But in the letters and in Sugar’s responses, they grapple with some of life’s biggest emotions and questions. The production manages to deliver on all of these emotions without ever becoming too maudlin. Brooks’s take on Sugar reminds us that she’s a mighty theatrical force and that every piece of advice she dispenses—and every related moment of self-reflection—has a big impact.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS runs through October 13 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $31-$65. Visit VictoryGardens.org or call 773.871.3000.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com