Cleverly staged by Kail (In the Heights, Hamilton, Dry Powder) on Rachel Hauck’s magnificently realistic set for the ground floor of a suburban house subtly lit by Jennifer Moeller, Tiny Beautiful Things is entertaining, poignant and enlightening. You may hear audible sobs at times during the evening as Sugar’s personal stories touch a nerve or a chord in her viewers. Vardalos tells us how she took over the “Dear Sugar” column though she had never written one before nor did she have any training in therapy. Her remarkable success was due to her using her personal experiences as well as her “radical sincerity and open arms.” Her empathy is infinite.
Not only does she not judge anyone, but she recounts her own similar experiences to explain what she advises. Compassion is her most prevalent trait. Woolams-Torres generally speaks the letters from women, Point-Du Jour those from younger men, and Cañez from the more mature men, but not always. At times they speak alternately as a chorus. Other times several similar problems are stated by the trio, and Sugar answers all of them in the same column.
Brilliantly staged by Kail who is a master at moving actors around on a unit set, all of the areas of the ground floor of the suburban house are used, living room, kitchen, dining room, staircase. The letters are about relationships, love and loss. Among the topics discussed are how to deal with death and loss, marriages that are failing, loneliness, keeping secrets from partners, feeling different, moving into a new age group, family estrangement, abuse, and generally believing that one’s own problems are unique.
Sugar responds with anecdotes about her late mother, her jobs, her two marriages, and her most bitter memories as well as her most cherished. She gives advice on healing, forgiveness, knowing when to cut your losses, and the power of No. One of the reasons the column, the book and now the play has touched so many people is that the advice is so heartfelt, even if you have not experienced the problem yourself, it seems likely to be the exact correct piece of wisdom to give a person in pain and one can extrapolate for one’s own life. The final sequence, like in the book, is advice for her younger self. Listen carefully as it is excellent wisdom to build one’s life around.
As Sugar (aka Cheryl Strayed), Vardalos has infinite patience, infinite compassion, shooting from the hip with true stories other people would have kept quiet about. At times she addresses the actor who speaks the letter; at others she addresses the audience as though we are her recipient; at still other times she sits at a laptop as though composing the answer as we watch.
Cañez, Point-Du Jour, and Woolams-Torres speak the (true) letters received (see the published edition of the best-selling book) with their hearts breaking or with eagerness to change. Sometimes they work as a chorus of voices with variations on the same problem, other times they recount individual experiences that are stories in themselves. As a team, the four create an atmosphere of group therapy that almost all viewers can relate to, everyone having had unpleasant or difficult decisions to make.
Kail’s direction is so assured that one forgets one is watching actors, not the original writers of the letters. As adapted by Vardalos and enacted by her and her company of three, Tiny Beautiful Things is just that, a beautiful evening of advice on the things in life that keep us from moving on. As she reminds us, years from now these problems will seem so small that now keep us totally unable to make a decision. It is also the little moments in life that may seem unimportant at the time that ultimately become our most cherished memories. I dare you to go and not be moved by what you will hear.
Tiny Beautiful Things (extended to December 10, 2017)
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission