By Erik Nikander
At its best, Tiny Beautiful Things delves deep into demanding emotional territory without becoming sappy or maudlin.
Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos. Directed by Jen Wineman. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through October 6
Advice column letters might not, at first glance, seem to be the most suitable material for a stage play. They inevitably follow a formula: A person writes in about an issue in their life that’s got them stuck, the (sometimes anonymous) columnist takes their best crack at handing out advice. Both parties go on with their lives. Not much room for a dramatic arc, and little in the way of substantial resolution. But, despite these odds, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Tiny Beautiful Things makes something happen. It stitches together snippets of Cheryl Strayed’s work from the advice column “Dear Sugar” into a sturdy theatrical tapestry that offers illuminating insights into human nature. It turns out a little anonymity can bring us all closer together.
After sending a fan letter to the writer of the “Dear Sugar” advice column, Cheryl Strayed (Lori Prince) is contacted by Sugar, who asks if she wants to take the column over. There’s no pay, and she’s already scrambling to manage other writing projects, but Strayed accepts. Once she starts writing as Sugar, Strayed cultivates a following of readers and letter-writers (represented onstage by Nael Nacer, Caroline Strang, and Shravan Amin); in the process, she shares more and more of her formative experiences and challenges.
As far as plot goes, that’s more or less the extent of it. Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos from Strayed’s book of the same name, Tiny Beautiful Things often feels like a collection of short plays rather than a substantial single narrative. This isn’t necessarily a drawback; the level of dramatic excitement varies somewhat from letter to letter, but it’s engaging to watch how Sugar responds to each quandary. Her insights are often drawn from her past, and these memories provide the piece with its most consistent through-line. As we hear more of Sugar’s responses, we construct a more complete picture of her character. The revelations are often-surprising, encouraging us to reflect on the fact that our preconceived notions of other people tend to be skewed, incomplete, or downright unfair.
Lori Prince’s performance imbues Sugar with plenty of wit and compassion, not to mention the toughness necessary to give people the sort of advice they ought to hear, knowing full well they won’t like the answer. She strikes an ideal emotional balance throughout, engaging with traumas and tragedies in a way that’s thorough and respectful without ever becoming mired in hopelessness. As we learn more about Strayed through the course of the piece, Prince’s composure becomes increasingly admirable; we appreciate what her character has gone through in order to reach this level of emotional stability.
Which is not to say that Sugar always maintains her cool, nor should she. After all, her readers are sharing traumatic experiences. The play’s most powerful scene features Nacer as a man grieving the death of his son in a car accident. Director Jen Wineman handles this moment with the required delicate touch. Nacer and Prince sit across from each other, talking about the most horrific moment in a father’s life with almost unbearable tenderness. The bond of trust between these two actors feels deep and genuine — the sense of catharsis they reach together is truly something special.
While none of the other letter-writer roles are as weighty or compelling as Nacer’s grieving father, the three performers play a vital part in keeping the Tiny Beautiful Things engaging. By turns funny, depressed, hopeful, and frustrated, they provide an emotional texture that gives Prince something tangible to play off of. Wineman keeps the actors are light on their feet, moving to take full advantage of the platforms scattered throughout Tim Mackabee’s set. In one particularly engaging moment, they personify the column itself. As Strayed tries to work on her other writing, Marie Yokoyama’s lighting places her in a spotlight, surrounded by an ocean of blue. Suddenly, the letter-writers break through this calm, swirling around her like a pack of attention-hungry sharks until she can’t keep their letters out of her head any longer. Strayed may have taken the “Dear Sugar” job on as a lark — but something about it keeps her hooked.
Perhaps it’s the anonymity. The freedom of the internet is often misused by trolls and bullies, who heap consequence-free abuse on whoever they please. But for Sugar and her readers, anonymity helps foster deep, meaningful human connections. Both parties can express themselves without fear of ridicule or shame, sharing their pain in a way that might not be acceptable otherwise. A community where nobody knows the other members’ real names can offer a powerful balm. Having someone to reach out to means that nobody needs to suffer alone.
Tiny Beautiful Things has its narrative highs and lows, but overall it is a frank and refreshing piece of theater. At its best, delves deep into demanding emotional territory without becoming sappy or maudlin. Performed with gusto by MRT’s cast, and guided by Wineman’s dynamic direction, the production turns a dubious concept (theater as therapy) into an affecting heart-to-heart.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.