Finding Beauty in The Tiny Things (That Aren’t So Tiny) 

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Shadow Theatre 2024. Tiny Beautiful Things. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography and Video.

by Lucy Haines

The doctor is in. Well, to be more precise, the author turned advice columnist is in, and she’s doling out words of wisdom to anyone who has a query; on stage, now, at the Varscona Theatre. To be even more precise, it’s Michelle Todd as Cheryl Strayed, a.k.a. Sugar, an anonymous online columnist offering advice to three letter writers in the form of Michael Peng, Sydney Williams and Brett Dahl, in Shadow Theatre’s season ender, Tiny Beautiful Things.

And, dear audience, you really don’t want to miss the potent medicine this quartet offers up. Like a good self-help book or therapy session, the play is touching and genuine in the hands of four skilled actors; an example of people really listening to and responding to each other in surprising ways, via anonymous letters.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a 90-minute one-act play that is essentially a Q & A between letter writers (representing dozens of characters) and advice giver. But there’s so much thought and heart in the questions asked and answers given, it’s like sitting with your best girlfriend after your boyfriend has dumped you—intimate, easy-going, sometimes silly and funny, sometimes poignant and tearful.

As Sugar, Todd is relatable and accessible, wandering about the easy-flowing set of kitchen, table, and living room chairs (designed by Cindy Zuby) in her pajamas and slippers, and giving honest and empathetic answers to the world’s deep or shallow queries with equal weight. Todd is great in the role; vulnerable, relatable and real.

“What the f***, what the f***, what the f***?”, asks one letter writer, looking for direction for pretty much everything in his life. In response, Sugar implores the writer to wring every bit out of his life, to make something of it, to take it seriously. She’s sincere and thoughtful in all her answers, which really is the heart of the play. It’s Strayed (who wrote a best-selling book on her time as an advice columnist, which Nia Vardalos adapted for the stage) relating to her letter writers by sharing her own most pivotal and traumatic life experiences.

Through her answers, we learn about Strayed’s sexually abusive grandfather, the impact of her mom dying young, and the failure of her first marriage. There’s an openness and bravery to the dialogue, admissions of failures, and inspiration in the reminder that we can all go on despite adversity.

In one particularly touching exchange, a grieving dad writes of how he can hardly go on after his 22-year-old son is killed in a car accident. The rawness and hopelessness expressed in his grief (offered with aching beauty by Peng), stirs Sugar’s own grief about her mom dying alone in hospital, and the columnist’s lament that her mother would never know her grandchildren. It’s a tender moment—one of several in the play.

There are amusing and less serious queries, too. Worries about weight, a boyfriend, shoplifting. Dahl and Williams are especially effective in these exchanges. The up and the down, the tragic and the frivolous, Tiny Beautiful Things has it all, and director John Hudson rightly puts it into perspective when he writes about what the play may evoke for each of our journeys. “How many people can we touch? Can we practice radical empathy?”

It’s the sharing, the encouragement that we all face difficulties and can overcome them, isn’t it? This play is a gentle reminder of just that.

Take in Tiny Beautiful Things, playing through May 12 at the Varscona. See shadowtheatre.org for tickets.

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