Raw, uncompromising, cathartic Tiny Beautiful Things

Ralph Malachowski
Adjunct Instructor at Berkeley College, New Jersey and Substitute Teacher at Northern Burlington County Regional School District

The Arden Theatre Company presents Tiny Beautiful Things on its Arcadia Stage until December 8, 2019. Tiny Beautiful Things is a play based upon the best-selling eponymous book by Cheryl Strayed, which is a compilation of advice from Cheryl Strayed writing under the name “Sugar” from 2010-2012 for the online literary journal Rumpus. Adapted for the stage by actress Nia Vardalos, it was co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Ms. Vardalos.

The Arden’s Arcadia Stage has been reconfigured to resemble a Greek theatre of ancient times, which prompts comparisons to the great tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, since from the first few minutes into Tiny Beautiful Things, we are bombarded by pleas from the obsessed, possessed, and depressed to have the anonymous Sugar solve all their problems – or at least make them feel a whole lot better. A tall order indeed, and as may be expected, during the course of the 80-minute one act, many are unhappy with the advice they are given, while others may have had a kind word save their lives. Acting as the Greek Chorus of letter writers are three accomplished actors listed only as Letter Writers #1, #2, and #3.

As Letter Writer #1, Akeem Davis creates a tremendous cumulative performance as he changes characters, moods, and situations rapidly and with aplomb. One moment he will ask Sugar for advice about his boyfriend, another about whether he should tell his lover that he had been raped years before. Then, as another person seeking advice, he does a 180-degree turn and writes to Sugar that he wants to make love to her because he knows she’s hot. Most movingly, he delivers the climactic profile of the play as a grieving father whose son has been killed by a drunk driver. He makes 21 statements to which Sugar replies with 21 replies of her own plus one. Emilie Krause plays Sugar with a saucy self-awareness and compassionate heart. As Sugar, Krause anonymously shares terrifying tales of sexual abuse in a dispassionate, yet ultimately hair-raising manner. Joilet F. Harris is Writer #2, and she brings pathos as well as humor to the characters she creates from their letters. One humorous story has a woman writing about a friend’s Santa fetish, and how she will buy a Santa Claus outfit so as to make out with her female friend. In her skilled hands, every character she presents is a living, breathing person. Bailey Roper as Letter Writer #3 uses their youthful demeanor to play several lesbian and gay characters as well as tortured teens seeking help with their angst.

Director Maura Krause writes in the program that a challenge with Tiny Beautiful Things was how to make a series of disjointed monologues into something coherent and vital. She credits her four incredible actors with breathing warmth and life into the stories from these solitary people who wrote so poignantly to an anonymous problem solver. Indeed, the intensity of the experience gains momentum until the actors skillfully and honestly bring the event to a close. Tiny Beautiful Things is a theatrical experience any serious theatregoer should not miss.

Tiny Beautiful Things is now at the Arcadia Stage of the Arden Theatre Company until December 8, 2019. An Iliad will be presented at the Arden’s Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre November 13 through December 15. For information, visit www.ardentheatre.org .

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