REVIEW: A Gorgeous Adaptation of “Tiny Beautiful Things”
The subject of adaptation was on my mind as I entered the Public’s Newman Theater for the final preview of “Tiny Beautiful Things” last Sunday. After recently seeing a string of un-inspired adaptations of books, movies, and classic plays, I was curious to see this adaption of Cheryl Strayed’s celebrated book of the same name.
I must admit, at the top, I have not read Strayed’s book, and knew almost nothing about it before the house lights dimmed. What followed were 85 of the most powerful and moving minutes I have spent in the theatre in some time (that is until I sobbed through the second half of “Mary Jane” at New York Theatre Workshop a few days later).
For those, like me, ignorant of the source material, beloved writer Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”) moonlit for some time as an online advice columnist named “Sugar”. Her book, “Tiny Beautiful Things”, is a collection of her columns from that endeavor—funny, heartfelt, devastating, and all deeply human. There are many ways that adapting this rich material to the stage could have gone horribly wrong. I am happy to report that this production—which sold out last year at the Public Theater and is now back for an encore run—is pitch perfect.
Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) stars as Strayed, milling about her home in pre-dawn hours, as mothers do, speaking aloud her replies to incoming e-mail questions. A trio of actors comprise the rest of the company, taking turns moving about the set—a realistic depiction of a disheveled and decidedly unfashionable living room and kitchen that we all know—asking “Sugar” their questions, alternatingly angry, sad, depressed, confused, curious, and comical.
Placing the setting of this play in the intimacy of Strayed’s messy home is an inspired choice by co-conceiver/director Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) and set designer Rachel Hauck, providing a specificity of space and time that grounds the material and gives the play a disarming and instant familiarity. Indeed, all the action plays out as an extended exercise in performing ordinary tasks seemingly unrelated to the material, as Vardalos as Strayed washes dishes, folds laundry, and makes lunches for school, all the while spinning beautifully crafted replies to her anonymous questioners who sign off with names like “Stuck”, “Crushed”, “Confused”, “Sexy Santa”, “Living Dead Dad”, and “WTF”.
The subject matter runs the gamut from the nature of love, to infidelity, rape, sexual abuse, miscarriage, forgiveness, and grief. In each reply, Strayed is bravely vulnerable, drawing on an experience from her own life to share a lesson, offer support, or send inspiration. It’s a formula that could easily become tired, but the construction and pacing of the play is so expertly done, that before you know it, the play is over, and not a minute too soon or too late. This is a well-oiled operation that nonchalantly telegraphs the importance of craft, much like Mr. Kail’s most famous and successful work, “Hamilton”.
All of this brings me back to the question of adaptation. Why adapt this material to the stage in the first place? And why the stage and not, say, make a movie instead?
Separate from the power of the material itself—which is exquisitely written and bursting with memorable lines worthy of poster, plaque, or tattoo—the experience of seeing this play live provides another source of power. The theatregoers who pile into the Newman as strangers become a community in those 85 minutes, sharing in a collective experience and offering to each other a silent exchange of support and unity. No matter what difficult subject Strayed tackles, there is someone in the audience who has lived it—the pain of a breakup, the loss of a child, the questioning of faith. Knowing that and being a part of that gives the evening a kinetic poignancy that is cathartic and moving. That exchange exists no where else but in live theatre, and is brilliantly displayed in this stunning production.
Bottom Line: Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a powerful and moving testament to the strength and resilience of the soul. The play has just extended to December 10th; get a ticket if you can.
Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: October 2, 2017
Final Performance: December 10, 2017