Tiny Beautiful Things: A Second Round of Big Powerful Waves
Returning to the Public Theater the other night for a second viewing of Tiny Beautiful Things, I started to prepare myself for a whole new round of emotional waves to come crashing in upon me. As it was the first time last fall, the writing was the source of that lump in my throat, and it was clear that this would be the case once again. The question that lingered is, would it be just as powerful knowing what was in store, or less. And as adapted by Nia Vardalos and directed by Thomas Kail, the ordinary miraculousness of this play is still solidly and most definitely entwined intensely inside every moment. I was prepared for this second round but was not ready. Cheryl Strayed writes from a most personal place and perspective, in a way that I have rarely encountered. The vulnerability that she hands to us with open arms is one that I always aspire to do and be as both a writer and a psychotherapist. It is place that is as connecting and rich as this theatrical piece is.
The book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, one that I have not read, is a collection of letters compiled from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously for the The Rumpus online literary magazine. Strayed’s writing comes from a very personal and intimate perspective awash in experiences both raw, complicated, and intensely difficult. She ‘advises’ by telling a story from a similar emotional space inside herself, sometimes completely shame inducing, and somehow, in a most mysterious way, circles back to a profound connection to the original plea for guidance.
To experience Strayed and in turn Vardalos’s reminds me of my own compulsive and desirous place when I’m drawn to watch scenes from movies or TV that I know can trigger tears instantly. I don’t need to watch all of ‘Terms of Endearment’ anymore to find myself in tears. That one moment when Shirley MacLaine comes back to the motel after being with her terminal ill daughter to find Jack Nicholson waiting on the steps for her. Instant tears. The preamble to get there isn’t needed anymore. But the ‘pleasure’ of being pulled into that space and experiencing that emotion is so satisfying. This show packs the same surprisingly spontaneous moments of emotional connectivity and if that simple story about ‘Terms of Endearment’ (or whatever your equivalent is) resonates at all with you, than you will find yourself drawn in to Tiny Beautiful Things as much as I was. In strong big waves.
Vardalos has stayed pretty close to the source material in the staging and adaptation (a beautiful set designed by Rachel Hauck – my only criticism is that it played with my suspension of disbelief seeing Vardalos walk backstage before her entrance down the stairs – took a beat to bypass that response). This group of gifted actors (Teddy Canez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Natalie Woolams-Torres), portraying all sorts of characters reaching out for advice from ‘Sugar’, pulls us skillfully and honestly into their stories and predicaments. They wander through her home space as if they live there, solidly inhabiting the mind of Strayed. It’s almost shocking how we can be so thoroughly engaged so quickly into these personal pleas for help and guidance.
And then there is Vardalos, responding with such a look of empathy and questioning. We see a spark of connection when a story reaches her and in that twist of her head, or that look in her eye, we instantly join her in her complete desire to be of use. There is a powerfully real moment of silence before she speaks, when so much transpires across her face as she searches her conscience for a real thing to say in response. The first attempt is priceless, saying everything perfectly. She tried with all her heart to find, not so much the right thing nor the best thing to say, but the most true and pure thing that she can grab from her personal life experiences. As it states in the program, “she does something brilliantly counterintuitive, using self-revealing stories of her own life for completely generous purposes”. As a psychotherapist in the real world, I completely resonated with that quagmire that we often find ourselves, and I have to give kudos to Strayed that she does find the right balance between revealing and withholding. There she discovers the most beautiful poetry within her radical sincerity, all in the pure hope to help another. It feels utterly genuine and sometimes profound. It’s a beautiful piece of work Vardalos has created, not insignificant in the least.
Although when first viewed, I struggled with the forward drive and momentum. Overall, there are many moments that have a strong deep emotionality and an intensity that can’t be denied. The show hits us like waves in the ocean, huge intense moments of surprising power, followed by a lull as we wait for the next.
The lulls though, first time around, were distracting, and I couldn’t help myself thinking and waiting for the next, wondering if this next letter and response was going to be as intoxicating as the last, or was it going to be the final exchange. I questioned, in the quiet moments in between, whether the cycles were starting to become tedious or repetitive but then the next inquiry began, and their story grabbed hold. I would find myself thoroughly invested once again. But on second viewing, maybe because I knew the next wave would come and envelope me completely, I trusted the piece far more. Especially the letter that was more of a list. That letter, performed most beautifully by Cañez, is the single most elegant and devastating moment in Tiny Beautiful Things. One I had forgotten about the first time round, but hit me hardest this last.
And then I waited and wondered, was this next letter going to be the story that prompts Sugar to incorporate the title of the show into her response? I knew that this would signal the end. And even though I wasn’t surprised by this theatrical construct, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed either. It felt right, and honorable. The ending does miraculously wrap this story up with a lovely bow. Is it too neat and perfect in the end? Maybe, but I didn’t mind in the least. Strayed and Vardolas had me under their spell. This isn’t tiny at all. It is an ocean of big powerful waves, beautiful and intense, crashing most stunningly on our shore. And I was glad to sit and watch them come in one after the other even for a second evening until the sun set once again on this glorious beach.