Chester Theatre at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA
Tiny Beautiful Things
by Nia Vardolos
based on the book by Cheryl Styrayed
Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Small things have rewards."
In an age where anonymity keeps people safe, even from their own needs, letter-writing has re-emerged as a safe haven for the curious and the needy. Writers of advice columns never have gone away and still plague the newspapers of our country. Likewise the internet has spawned a whole new troop of them. Nia Vardalos (author and star of the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" has written a play about one such well meaning, open-hearted individual known as "Sugar." Sugar was originated by a man, Steve Almond, and published in an on-line blog, The Rumpus, who passed the role on to Strayed, author of the book Wild (made into a Reese Witherspoon movie). She kept the column going for years, ultimately bringing it to The New York Times and compiling her book "Tiny Beautiful Things. She is a publishing industry all her own. Now the stage edition of her story is on stage at Hancock Shaker Village, produced by Chester Theatre and starring Tara Franklin in a truly wonderful representation.
Three other actors play her letter-writers: Candace Barrett Birk, Taavon Gamble, and James Barry. They each represent at least a dozen different people who write in for advice, encouragement or at least an answer in their loneliness and isolation. For about 86 minutes in this 90 minute play the story belongs to them with "Sugar" giving them all what they need, or whatever Strayed believes they need. In considering their stories and problems she manages to work on her difficulties and becomes a better person, an unanticipated benefit of the job. Many of the characters repeat throughout the play and one, played by James Barry, exercises his sexual fantasies in letter form with Sugar. He is prone to bad language but Sugar/Cheryl can handle that and she does. Ultimately he seriously sends her a list of his deep concerns and she counters with a list of her own, confronting his anguish with her own and
providing Barry and Franklin with two back-to-back monologues that surprise us and move us, too. Barry is superb in all of his characters here.
Tara Franklin has tackled many difficult roles in the past but this one is different. Here she plays a troubled character, with past drug problems and other disabilities, who finds a personal redemption through writing responses to other troubled people. She tackles other folks' problems with a verve and a growing enthusiasm that inspires her finest qualities. The growth is gradual and then becomes her personal identification and the transition in Chery l/Sugar can be seen in Franklin's posture, her face and body and her voice. Using other actors in what is really an hour and a half monologue is Vardalos at her best, keeping the play a real play and holding our interest.
She sorts and folds laundry during the show and the movement, so defined and spedific, keep her in front of her audience in the guise of a productive woman who has a real life to concern her. Her immaculate shirt-dress enlivens the image of a woman in charge of herself, if not slipping into old bad habits. There is something so even-handed about her portrait of who Cheryl Strayedh is that when she reveals her identity to her reader/contributors it is as though she wanted a perfect image to present to them. Franklin handles all of it beautifully, professionally, and always with a certain pride.
Tara Franklin; Photo: Elizabeth Solaka
Sugar takes particular care with many of the characters played by Taavon Gamble. Most of the writers Gamble plays are eager, sympathetic men, including one transgendered individual whose personal tale is heartbreaking, who need encouragement more than anything. He plays these people perfectly and wins our applause for his honesty and talent.
Candace Barrett Birk crosses the gender barrier with her characters and each one is specifically identifiable and well-played. Her directness with each is remarkable. This ensemble, along with Barry, give the play its extremes and its center. Director Daniel Elihu Kramer weaves them into an ongoing and on-growing world who cannot survive with Sugar and who make Cheryl into a whole person once again. Along with costume designer Charles Schoonmaker, lighting designer Lara Dubin, set designer Juliana von Haurbricht and sound designer Nathan Leigh Kramer oversees a distinguished group of theater people wo co-create a veritable hit of a play. For Chester Theatre, a hit in their season of fine, fine theatre.
+ 08/19/2021 +
Tiny Beautiful Things plays in the Chester Theatre tent on the ground of Hancock Shaker Village on Route 20 in Pittsfield/Hancock MA through August 29. For information and tickets go to Chester@Hancock.