At Trinity - Tiny Beautiful Things works hard
Sometimes a play makes the actors work, and sometimes the actors make the play work. (Oh, and, of course, the director too.) Often both happen at the same time.
At Trinity Repertory Theater, 201 Washington Street in Providence, where Tiny Beautiful Things is on stage through February 13, this is one of those occasions.
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardolos, and co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kal, and Nia Vardolos, Tiny Beautiful Things is directed by Trinity’s Artistic Director, Curt Columbus.
The premise for this production is pretty simple. With some trepidation and no direct prior experience, a woman accepts the job of becoming an advice columnist.
She calls herself Sugar, and she decides that no matter what else happens she will demonstrate radical empathy for the people who write to her seeking her help.
From there the play unfolds essentially as a series of conversations between Sugar and the advice-seekers as they act out the dialogues in the letters and her answers to them.
The original conceit was based on what the author, Cheryl Strayed, claims were actual queries for help and her replies to the gamut of often gut-wrenching pleas that she received from readers.
Many of them were desperate for a way to understand dilemmas and experiences that challenged the writers to keep going in the face of overwhelming adversity.
In reality the advice column was posted on-line, but in the play the exchanges come in the form of letters. Curt Columbus has explained in the playbill that the more palpable and durable, if increasingly passe, epistolary declaration of thoughts and emotions on paper has greater impact and more chance of enduring over time than the ephemeral process of e-mail.
To make the point, the set by Baron E. Pugh is a replication of a classic American Post Office in the style of the last century, if not the century before, all stone façade and grand windows. The stage is littered with mail in various envelopes, bags, and containers.
As the various letter writers unburden their hearts Sugar responds from hers. There are tales of sexual abuse, relationship failures, hope for a better future, desperate concern for personal appearance, despair at the lack of promise that any path will open, and so on.
Sugar adopts the attitude that the pain and frustration she finds in the letters must be respected and embraced. Her advice is laced with comments like “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and “you have to do more than hold on, you have to reach.”
The writing is lyric and bold. Sometimes it is quite profane. One writer is obsessed with the F word. Taken together, though, the script often seems like prose poetry, a paean to candor and compassion that captures the effort life requires to persevere in the face of torrential despair and frustration.
In the final analysis, Sugar offers the reassurance that comes from comprehending the writers, from understanding them and reacting with love.
Nearing the finish of the reading and response, she declares “I am Sugar, and so are all of you.” Affirmation come from identifying with each other’s true selves, this suggests.
The test that the material presents for the actors is in the form that it takes. The bar is high, and it is a heavy lift for the cast to turn what is essentially a sensitive reading of a series of letters into firsthand drama rather than a recitation of compelling but not truly interactive performance.
Fortunately, the actors that assume the task are equal to the job. Some of the most beloved and revered players in the company are in Tiny Beautiful Things.
Angela Brazil is Sugar. Her dynamic performance is the through-line for the story, and her ear for the resonance between her character’s fierce empathy and the desperate need for it, is the stitching that makes the seams hold fast.
The letter writers are played by revered Trinity veterans Stephen Berenson, Phyllis Kay, and Brian McEleney who are joined by newer additions to the Trinity stage, Marcel Mascaro and Jenna Lea Scott. Together the synergy they achieve lifts this production to the level it must reach to be well remembered.