Review: Tiny Beautiful Things, produced by Chester Theatre Company

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The small but superb Chester Theatre Company ends its summer residency at Hancock Shaker Village on a high note with a soothing, heartfelt production of Tiny Beautiful Things, an epistolary play by Nia Vardalos, adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name. As background, for about two years beginning in 2010, Strayed—most famous for her autobiographical book Wild (which was made into a 2014 film produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon) wrote an advice column called “Dear Sugar” in the online literary magazine The Rumpus. A selection of letters to Dear Sugar and Strayed’s responses comprise the book and the play, which begins as the Strayed character descends a staircase into her brightly colored living room, which is cluttered with the evidence of motherhood: toys scattered everywhere, clothes strewn about, a basket full of laundry to be folded.

Though the play lacks a traditional plot, the action is set in motion when Strayed’s laptop emits the familiar bing of incoming email, a welcome distraction as she’s tidying up. We see and hear the author of the email reading it from one side of the set; he’s an acquaintance she met at a writer’s conference offering her the opportunity to take over his advice column. It’s not a great opportunity since it’s unpaid, and Strayed is already stretched thin tending to two young kids and trying to finish a book, but she takes it. And then those bings come fast and furious, each one an email from someone in need of help.

Three fine actors—James Barry, Candace Barrett Birk, and Taavon Gamble—embody the letter writers. Subtly and expertly costumed by Charles Schoonmaker, they look like characters—not characters in a play, but the type of quirky person that would be writing to Dear Sugar rather than Dear Abby for advice. At first they hurl their questions rapid fire from the side of the stage, somewhat suspicious because they have noticed a change in the tone of responses and they demand to know who has taken over the column. Gradually they join Strayed in her living room as they become more comfortable with and trusting of her advice, even occasionally interacting with her onstage. 

There’s no dialogue per se—just the letters and Strayed-as-Sugar’s responses. But there are many powerful moments, such as when the letter writers take on the aspect of a Greek chorus, repeating important words, such as love, daughter, and I am forgiven.

The letters run the gamut of topics that define human existence: work, relationships, sexuality, health concerns, substance abuse, abandonment, betrayal, the death of loved ones. Some are read without response, but the ones Strayed decides to address typically reveal the vulnerability of the author. Her replies, in turn, reveal a lot about her; most hinge on her reaching back to relay a personal anecdote, through which her own troubled past is unveiled—the death of her mother at a young age; the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a relative; her heroine addiction—none of which is hinted at as she putters about in her messy but cheerful living room, making peanut butter sandwich school lunches for her kids while broaching the most difficult fo subjects. The contrast between her happy domesticity and the harrowing letters can be heartbreaking; her responses expose as much of her own vulnerability as do the letter writers. Her experiences have made her wise, she is able to extend comfort to strangers, and her compassion seems boundless.

Tara Franklin hits all the right notes as Strayed/Sugar, a tribute to her acting chops and the directing skills of Daniel Elihu Kramer, Chester’s producing artistic director. The scenic design by Juliana von Haubricht is perfect for setting the tone of Strayed’s life and containing the action. The sound and lighting design, by Nathan Leigh and Lara Dubin, respectively, contribute to the overall success of this production, which comes to us as a balm in these troubled times. 

Chester Theatre Company’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things runs at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through August 29.