Chester’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” Has Radical Sincerity To Move and Inspire
There is a story to be told in Chester Theatre Company’s season of three plays staged under a tent at the Shaker Hancock Village in this summer of re-emergence. “Title and Deed” saw the weary traveler on the road adjusting to new surroundings, “The Niceties” hurled us into a national debate with pitched interests on both sides and now, with the Regional Premiere of “Tiny Beautiful Things” we are gathered together, empathizing with the brutal hardships life has doled out, comforting each other with our honest recollections of lived experience and sharing aphorisms and stories garnered from the story of our lives.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s online advice column “Dear Sugar.” We are in Sugar’s (Artistic Associate Tara Franklin) living room when she receives an email from one of the Letter Writers (Franklin’s real-life husband and CTC regular James Barry) asking if she would like to take over his anonymous online advice column called “Dear Sugar.” She would receive letters from troubled souls, choose who to respond to, and write a response. A tempting job offer to a survivor who has lived a full life and best of all? There’s no pay involved.
After struggling with her first couple of responses with a Letter Writer (charming Taavon Gamble) who is wondering whether he is ready to say “I love you” to his girlfriend, Sugar hits on her radical sincerity and tells him and us the story of how “love” was the last word her mother said to her. “My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime.” We are hooked into the Writer’s anguished predicament (the other Writer is the salty Candace Barrett Birk) and Sugar will relate it to some thorny story from her hardscrabble past which includes besides most significantly losing her mother at a young age, an incestuously abusive grandfather, her father’s abandonment, a premature marriage at 19 and heroin addiction.
Her closing statement to Gamble’s letter: “You asked me, when do you have to take that big step and tell your girlfriend that you love her, and my answer is when you think you love her. Be brave, Brave enough to break your own heart. Tackle the motherfucking shit out of love. Look, we’re all going to die. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime. Signed, Sugar”
The stories maintain our engagement all night long and they always move in surprising ways, neatly directed by Chester’s Artistic Director, Daniel Elihu Kramer who moves the Letter Writer and Sugar around her living room as the evening goes on. The cast is pretty great. I loved Gamble’s letter describing how he transitioned and his parents have written seven years after rejecting him looking to be reunited. He had a hard time even finishing the line “I want to know how to care again.”
Much of the advice from Sugar, and when challenged she says it is not advice, are challenges to the Writers to value themselves more. Because they want better for themselves is reason enough for them deserving it. “Ask better questions.” “We get to choose who we allow to influence us.” “Wanting to leave is enough.” It is Barrett Birk who stands up aggressively and calls out Strayed claiming in one letter, “How can you suggest in one column that we stick to convention and then in the very next one, say that we gotta’ be bold?! Signed, Not Buying It.” Sugar responds “I will show you my brokenness and my strengths and I will do my best to offer my best, tough, sweet and even occasionally contradicting advice.”
An extended sequence towards the end of the play has a gripping list from a father played by Barry with sweat and tears pouring down his face explaining the 22 reasons he can’t go on after losing his 22-year-old son to a hit and run crash by a drunk driver. If the play might be criticized for being too decorous up to this point, the stakes are raised immediately and the price paid for the normalcy the characters strive for is laid bare. I would have a hard time with someone who is not moved by this monologue signed Living Dead Dad and Franklin’s response to him which numbers to 24.
“No” might be another theme of the play. The father of the dead young man says he received a letter of apology from the man, incarcerated for 18 months who killed his son. “I barely scanned it, I ripped it into pieces and threw it in the garbage.” Elsewhere in the script, Sugar reminds herself “No is golden. It’s the good kind of power. It’s the way emotionally evolved people live their lives. It’s the way to set boundaries. No means you’re choosing what to share.”
Another favorite passage that’s in a letter to herself after she reveals she is Cheryl Strayed: “Don’t lament so much how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Keep the faith. Do the work. The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a heart-rending celebration of gratitude for having made it through the storm and having the desire and courage to keep showing up. Dear Chester, It was a marvelous, moving summer of essential theater! Signed, Revived.