This is the third time I’ve seen Nia Vardalos’ moving, funny stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling collection of “Dear Sugar” advice columns. If I can’t embrace all the choices that director David Saint has made in his George Street Playhouse production of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” I certainly would like to hug Laiona Michelle.
Michelle now portrays Sugar, answering letters from people asking for help in their struggles with loss and love, crises and regrets; her performance makes it even easier to overlook the inherently awkward staging of the show.
I first saw “Tiny Beautiful Things” on stage at the Public Theater in 2016, directed by Thomas Kail (hot off of Hamilton) and starring Vardalos (best-known as the writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”) Vardalos puttered around an elaborate re-creation of Sugar’s home, while three other actors stood around in her home, looking weirdly out of place, as they took turns reciting the various letters, to which she then responded, while she did household chores like washing dishes and folding laundry.
The personal stories we heard were so charged with emotion that the set-up was only occasionally distracting.
Exactly a year ago (two months into the pandemic) Vardalos starred again in the show, this time a Zoom version live-streamed. It made more sense that the four actors now each occupied their own square on the screen, which came closer to the actual experience of the advice column — characters isolated in their individual spaces seeking advice from Cheryl in her separate space.
Now this third version is also streaming, but we are back to the initial set-up – all four actors sharing a home….this time an actual home on a lake somewhere in New Jersey. Sugar/Cheryl is puttering around, mostly preparing a meal, while the other actors stand around, often drinking wine, each portraying a steady stream of letter writers. Even if, this time around, it ends with their sitting around the table sharing the meal that Cheryl was making, the approach makes even less sense now than it did in 2016, given that this was filmed in the midst of the pandemic (nobody’s wearing masks or keeping socially distanced.)
But still the show works; perhaps more so than before. That’s largely because Cheryl’s approach to advice was to find stories from her own life, and Michelle helps turn what might at first blush seem like a collection of problems by random strangers, into the story of a life, Cheryl’s life.
Story by story, we piece together a portrait of a survivor whose wisdom has accrued through hard experience — she was abused as a toddler; her mother died young; she was impregnated by a heroin addict while she herself was using the drug. What’s most startling and rewarding about her stories is not just that they are told well, but that they are applied to advice-seeker’s dilemmas to which they don’t necessarily initially seem relevant.
I always thought the most moving moments of “Tiny Beautiful Things” were about grief, especially in an exchange with a father whose 22-year-old son was killed by a drunken driver. How to console the inconsolable? “Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.” (As in the past productions, the acting made the exchange deeply touching; it didn’t need the director’s embellishments of lit candles in the dark and gentle music.) They resonant the most now, 14 months into a grief-stricken time in which we are only beginning to glimpse an end.
It might be hard to remember what life was like before. I was taken aback by how much George Street is charging– $33, until I looked back to 2016, when tickets cost $95.
Tiny Beautiful Things
George Street Playhouse
Streaming through May 23
Based on the book “TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” by: Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the Stage by: Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by: Marshall Heyman
Co-conceived by: Thomas Kail
Co-conceived by: Nia Vardalos
Director: David Saint
Cast: Laiona Michelle, John Bolger, Kally Duling, and Ryan George.
Art Direction by Helen Tewskbury
Cinematography and Editing by Michael Boylan
Costume Design by Lisa Zinni
Original Music and Sound Design by Scott Killian
Sound Editing by Ryan Rumery
Running time: 90 minutes