Austin Playhouse's Tiny Beautiful Things

There's excellent work in Austin Playhouse's production about Cheryl Strayed writing an advice column, but where's the humility?

Barbara Chisholm as Sugar in Tiny Beautiful Things (Photo by Errich Petersen)

Most grief experiences involve a period of terrible isolation. Then, after a time – days, months, years – we find that we aren't quite so alone. It's not healing, exactly, but the awareness that almost everyone is broken in one way or another offers a strange comfort.

That's the beauty of Tiny Beautiful Things, onstage now at Austin Playhouse. The production offers proof that even when the events of our lives turn brutal, we're not as alone as we might think.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a play that Nia Vardalos adapted from the book by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild. The book compiles advice columns that Strayed wrote for the online column "Dear Sugar." Insightful, poetic, and confessional, the pieces are a reminder that it's possible to discover beauty and meaning in our brokenness.

Onstage, the letters make for curious stagecraft. Under the direction of Rosalind Faires (a Chronicle contributor and daughter of Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires), the character arc of Sugar (played by Barbara Chisholm – wife of Robert, mother of Rosalind, and, I would imagine, co-owner of the family pets) isn't conventionally shaped. Sugar doesn't start out as some naive ingenue or bad-seed type in need of transformation. There aren't lessons that her letter writers (played by Lowell Bartholomee, Crystal Bird Caviel, and John R. Christopher) can teach her about humility or compassion. If anything, it's a slow fulfillment of Sugar's need to make use of her own traumas and past mistakes. Through these letters, she finds herself confirmed in the conviction that humans are creatures of hope and strength. All this happens in the family basement (designed by Mike Toner).

Back to that word "humility." One of the letters in Strayed's book that doesn't make the cut except in passing is from a young, struggling, wannabe author. The writer complains how she knows she's got great talent but struggles to actually produce a book. Sugar advises her to accept a little humility. Let go of any notion of greatness, and just do the work.

The single artistic choice that undermines the production is the disregard of Strayed's own humility. On the page, Sugar reads as someone who offers rather than advises. She remains in the trenches with her readers – setting her own boundaries, day by day, and facing her own mistakes. In this show, though, Sugar speaks with vast assurance and confidence. She's figured it all out and is eager to share. The script doesn't really construct Sugar's character with dimensions beyond what her own writing reveals. Rather, it's a director's choice to make Sugar bold and eager, one that I'd argue doesn't suit Sugar's actual voice or the heart of her message.

The vulnerability at the heart of "Dear Sugar" comes through best when Bartholomee speaks to Sugar as a bereft father mourning the loss of his son. He shows what grief is like in those long, horrible years after the first blows have fallen, when one is simply trying to survive – "working through the unimaginable," to borrow a line from Hamilton. He's quiet and honest. His words are devastating. Sugar does her best to meet him where he is.

All the performers in Austin Playhouse's production of Tiny Beautiful Things are excellent actors who do great work. Faires is a strong and confident director with a knack for balance and pacing. What falls short in this staging stems from a central choice of how to convey Sugar's unique voice. To an audience coming to Sugar's words for the first time or with a different take on her writing, the experience could be different. As Sugar herself might say, "There's something here for you, Sweet Pea. Do your best."

Tiny Beautiful Things

Austin Playhouse at ACC Highland, Highland Mall Blvd. & Jonathan Dr., Bldg. 4000, 512/476-0084
Through Feb. 2
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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Austin Playhouse, Cheryl Strayed, Nia Vardalos, Rosalind Faires, Barbara Chisholm, Lowell Bartholomee, Crystal Bird Caviel, John R. Christopher, Mike Toner, Dear Sugar

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