In her program notes, director Courtney Sale bemoans the arduous task she is given of staging Tiny Beautiful Things. In an imagined letter to the author Cheryl Strayed, Sale writes, “I am a bit terrified and a little angry you aren’t a play like I know a play.” Her concern is well founded: how in the world do you turn the give and take of Strayed’s advice column into a coherent stage production? Turns out Sale needn’t have worried. Playwright Nia Vardalos has done a marvelous job of adapting Strayed’s 2012 book into an effective stage piece. With the aid of a topnotch cast, the Seattle Rep’s Tiny Beautiful Things is a one-act play filled with moments of hilarity as well as heart tugging drama. Its hundred minutes fly by in a highly entertaining night of theater.
Julie Briskman skillfully drives the production, portraying Sugar, the pen-name Strayed inherited when the advice column more or less fell into her lap while she was working on her memoir Wild. Briskman does stellar work presenting the innovative pieces of advice she offers to a wide variety of letter writers played with jaw-dropping versatility by Chantal DeGroat, Charles Leggett and Seattle’s bright young playwright Justin Huertas (Lizard Boy.) Often Strayed’s responses incorporate large patches of autobiographical narrative, recounting with bracing and unflinching honesty, a life filled with very hard times. Strayed was abused as a young girl by a family member, fought a heroin addiction and at one point was down to her last 20 cents. She recounts her history with a clear eye and not a hint of self-pity. Strayed goes on to provide startlingly perceptive advice, filled with empathy and insight into the human condition. Strayed’s impressive language skills shine brightly throughout Briskman’s performance.
The script employs a Book-it theater style, greatly relying on Strayed’s actual text from her book. Sometimes the letters become the material for a performer’s soliloquy, with lines spoken directly to the audience. At other times the content of the advice column is transformed into more traditional stage dialogue. Topics of the letter writers run the gamut from accepting a transgender child, rape, fidelity and infidelity, loneliness and a disgruntled man who is worried about his girlfriend who is sexually obsessed with Santa Claus. Near the play’s closing, Leggett presents a letter confronting nearly unspeakable grief. Briskman’s performance of Sugar’s heartfelt response makes for one of the highlights of the play. It will be the only moment of the night where two actors physically touch.
The unique format of the play allows characters who initially only connected through an advice column to actually meet each other on stage. This extra level of connection imbues the production with a remarkably positive, life-affirming aura. The play seems to insist that even in the darkest moments of our lives, there remains shared love, hope and understanding.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through June 23. The Rep is located in the Seattle Center at 155 Mercer Street. For ticket information go to seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.