TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS - Chester Theatre Company
Chester@Hancock ends its summer 2021 under a tent on a curious production, a play without a plot, which still works as theater, thanks to sensitive and clever direction by CTC artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer and a very able quartet of actors. “Tiny Beautiful Things”, based on best-selling author Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical book, posits advice columnist Sugar counseling readers on all kinds of life troubles from the inconsequential to the gravest. (The book was adapted by screenwriter Nia Vardolas, who wrote and starred in the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. The play was first staged at The Public Theater in Manhattan.)
Director Kramer keeps what could be a tedious question and answer format from getting repetitive. The set, a modest cozy, somewhat cluttered living room is the household nest for columnist Sugar (a role totally inhabited by Berkshire native Tara Franklin) who fields questions from three letter writers (James Barry, Candace Barret Birk and Taavon Gamble) who play dozens looking for advice for problems large and small. They take varying positions around the stage, as sort of a hybrid of invisible observers to the other writers and silent Greek chorus). Sugar, for example, uses a laptop, folds laundry; I’m not trying to be trivial but it’s amazing there’s as much action on the stage as there is.
If a story is hidden in “Tiny Beautiful Things” it is Sugar’s own. Bit by bit we learn of her sexual abuse by a paternal grandfather beginning at age three, heroin addiction, an abortion and the emotionally devestating death of her mother when she was 20. Director Kramer finds rhythm in Vardolas’ script; as Sugar’s own life tragedies are revealed, so does the gravitas of letter writers' problems mount. The play culminates in the most poignant letter - from an angry father who can’t release the pain of the death of his 22 year old son caused by a drunk driver - and Sugar’s response. Franklin and (real-life husband) James Barry validate the entire production in this one, devastating scene.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” transcends being a play and will leave audiences with unexpected counsel for everyday life. For me, it became apparent how much Sugar’s (and Strayed’s) owen being and empathy for others is anchored by Twelve Step fundamentals. Acceptance: embrace reality, don't run from it. What’s more, Own It: good or bad, ugly or beautiful, life is yours.