Directed by Sharon Graci and based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed, adapted by Nia Vardolos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) for the stage, Tiny Beautiful Things is basically an advice column come to life.
But if you’re thinking Dear Abby or Ann Landers, think again. There’s no hint of “mother knows best” or self-righteous scolding in Strayed’s approach to "Dear Sugar,” the column she wrote for years and published on The Rumpus, long before she achieved literary and film fame for her wildly successful memoir Wild.
The actual letters from real-life people and Strayed’s emotionally candid “signed, Sugar” responses are tiny, beautiful missives reprinted in the book and reenacted in the play. That’s it; no other embellishment, no additional plot layered on top, no special effects, and it proves plenty enough.
Actor Christy Landis embodies Strayed’s no-pretense, no-bullshit approach perfectly. We meet her shuffling around a cluttered apartment in mismatched pajama pants, camisole, sweater, and fuzzy socks. Kids’ toys are strewn on the floor, crumbs and remnants of messy mundane domesticity abound. She’s barely making it as a writer and mother of two when she gets an offer to write the unpaid, anonymous Dear Sugar column, which, despite her better judgment, she accepts (freelancers and artists in the audience will totally get Landis’ well-played, brief equivocation).
And from here, the play launches in to the back-and-forth between Sugar and the letter writers, played by PURE Core Ensemble members Sullivan Hamilton and Douglas Scott Streater, and Evan Parry, head of Theatre Performance at the College of Charleston, who convincingly shift personas, ethnicities, and even genders with Etch-a-Sketch ease.
Credit goes to Richard Heffner for a set design that provides a cohesive canvas for a series of individual vignettes, and to Graci for choreographing a lively repartee and ensuring that Hamilton, Streater, and Parry strike a delicate balance between imbuing enough acting — without overdoing it — to ensure the play is more than a staged reading.
Parry in particular is deft at conveying multitudes through subtle expressions; watching his face during the Dead Dad Letter segment is to observe some mighty exquisite acting. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the play is long, but the audience seemed fully engaged. I know I was.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, Graci and cast take us far from the glossy images we project in our social media fabrications and smack into the gorgeously, heart-opening, heartbreaking, and often incomprehensible realities of personhood and relationships. Yep, all the loop-de-loops of desire, despair, shame, love, loss, hope, and fear are laid bare, with some pretty delicious humor to make it go down easy.
Nuggets of Sugar’s nakedly honest wisdom ricochet about the Cannon Street Arts Center like tourists at the Market:
“True healing is a fierce place of monstrous beauty and glimmering heart.”
“You have to do more than hold on; you have to reach.”
“Every last one of us can do more than give up.”
"The best thing we can do with our life is tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”
And in reply to a recurring letter writer played hilariously by Parry, who implores, time and again, “What the fuck? What the fuck!? What the fuck — as it applies to everything, every day,” Sugar replies: “The fuck is your life. Answer it.”
PURE Theatre has answered it with this production of Tiny Beautiful Things, which opened to a full house and full hearts. The program notes include a quote from Variety calling the play “a theatrical hug in turbulent times.”
I felt less a hug than a kick in the ass — in the best possible way. One that reminds me to be more forgiving, to be open and generous and not so damned self-absorbed, 'cause we all long simply to be seen, accepted, and understood. We’re all just craving some sugar. Lucky for us, it’s being served up at PURE till Feb. 1.