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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ is more than just a play

Under Chester Theatre Company Director Daniel Elihu Kramer, this play "leaves audiences with unexpected counsel for everyday life."

Chester@Hancock ends its summer 2021 season under a tent on a curious production, a play without a plot, which still works as theater, thanks to sensitive and clever direction by Chester Theatre Company 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 Vardalos, who wrote and starred in the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The play was first staged at The Public Theater in Manhattan.)

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 of columnist Sugar (a role totally inhabited by Berkshire native Tara Franklin) who fields questions from letter writers (James Barry, Candace Barrett Birk, and Taavon Gamble playing dozens of characters) 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 uses a laptop, folds laundry — I’m not trying to be trivial; 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 devastating death of her mother when she was 20. Kramer finds rhythm in Vardalos’ 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 (her 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) own 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.

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