When an overworked, middle-aged writer and stay-at-home mom gets an email from an old friend asking her to take over his role as an anonymous online advice columnist, she has every reason to say no. She is already overwhelmed trying to find time to finish her next novel in between packing lunches and doing endless loads of laundry, and the position is unpaid to boot. So, of course, she says yes.
Thus begins the emotional rollercoaster that is the play “Tiny Beautiful Things,” running now at the Spring Theatre, TheatreSquared’s smaller, more intimate in-the-round space. The play is a theatrical adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” a collection of letters she received and advice she gave while working as the titular Sugar. Nia Vardalos, of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, adapted the anthology for the stage.
The main character, tenderly and beautifully played by T2 veteran Rebecca Harris, settles into the role of Sugar and responds to the emails flooding her inbox from people desperate for advice on everything from trivial relationship quarrels to extremely dark personal struggles.
As she does so, more and more of her own tragic past and inspiring fight to thrive in a world that has given her its worst comes to light. She is able to relate and sensitively respond to abuse survivors, drug addicts and heartbroken individuals trapped in the shackles of grief because she had similar experiences in her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.
Three actors portray dozens of advice seekers, narrating their Dear Sugar letters while moving throughout Sugar’s home like spirits, symbolizing the closeness she feels to the strangers.
Francisca Muñoz, Broderick Clavery and August Forman show impressive range and flexibility with their sharp, moving portrayals of the email writers, although a few of the Forman’s characters felt a little over-acted. The emotional climax and most powerful performance of the play, by far, is Clavery’s narration of an email from a devastated father who has been left a shell of his former self by his son’s untimely death, complemented by Harris’ halting narration of Sugar’s heartbroken, loving response.
The set design for “Tiny Beautiful Things” is solid, as it usually is at T2, if a bit simple. The sole setting of the play is the open-plan living room, breakfast area and kitchen of Sugar’s middle-class home. Admittedly, it’s a lot to fit into an area as small as the performance floor of the Spring Theatre, so the designers made impressively efficient use of space. And props to them (pun intended) for the inclusion of real, working kitchen appliances.
The lighting design, while understated, is probably the most essential element of the show’s visual appeal. Without giving too much of the plot away, I’ll say this: the show’s closing lighting effects will make you cry, if the play’s heart-wrenching subject matter hasn’t already.
While not the most emotionally impactful or most beautifully produced show I have ever experienced, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is certainly up there, and the plot benefits from a stirring sense of authenticity lent by its basis in Strayed’s reality. Ultimately the play is a flawed but beautiful celebration of the joys and pains of being human — kind of like real life.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs through Dec. 5 at TheatreSquared on Spring Street, with streaming options also available until the show’s close. In-person and streaming tickets are available online. As part of T2’s 30 Under 30 program, 30 tickets to each performance are set aside at a price of $10 each for students and those under 30.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is not a family show and contains substantial subject matter intended only for mature audiences. Some adults will find the play’s explicit discussions of grief, family trauma, sexual assault, child abuse and drug addiction disturbing, so audience discretion is strongly advised.