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REVIEW: "Tiny Beautiful Things" Is The Best Pandemic Theatre I've Seen

By Gary Wien

REVIEW: "Tiny Beautiful Things" Is The Best Pandemic Theatre I

If you’ve been missing live theatre and haven’t been impressed by the online offerings as of yet, there is one week left to purchase a stream for Tiny Beautiful Things - a production that just might change your mind about how theatre can be created during a pandemic.

Tiny Beautiful Things is based on the best-selling novel by Cheryl Strayed. Oscar-nominated writer, Nia Vardalos adapts the book based on the Dear Sugar advice column and turns it into a powerful series of monologues.  All ranges of human emotions are on display here and neither the questioners nor Sugar hold anything back.

Presented by George Street Playhouse, the production stars Laiona Michelle as a writer asked to take over an online advice column. John Bolger, Kally Duling, and Ryan George (all who have performed for the New Brunswick theatre company before) portray the people seeking the advice of “Sugar”.  They handle characters of every age group and gender.  From those facing one significant problem to a guy who regularly wonders, “What the fuck? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything, every day.”

Directed masterfully by David Saint, the stream is available until Sunday, May 23rd. The production is not shown like a play on a stage with a far shot and it’s not shown with ultra closeups like a television show - it’s something in between.  There is a depth to the camera angles, which seems far closer to watching an actual play that many of the performances I’ve seen online.  More importantly, it has a  certain style of its own.  Each shot is beautifully done and the filming is artistic on its own.

The production opens with Laiona being offered the advice column.  At first she is prepared to turn it down.  She’s got plenty of bills, mouths to feed, a book she’s trying to write, and while the column won’t bring in any salary, it certainly will take up plenty of her time.

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But she changes her mind and goes for it.

The change in advice being given is noticed immediately by the community.  At first they question her ability to give advice.  Then they begin enjoying her advice.  Soon, she is part of the community and they want to know who she is.  But, as she reminds them, Sugar reveals intimate and painful details about her life with each response.  She has a wonderful knack of tying experiences from her own past to their questions. Her readers not only get to know her, they might even know her better than she knows herself.

REVIEW: "Tiny Beautiful Things" Is The Best Pandemic Theatre I

“My mother bought a dress for the granddaughter she’ll never know,” said Sugar during one of her most memorable responses.  “My mother bought a dress for the granddaughter she’ll never know.  How beautiful.  How ugly… How little.  How big… How painful.  How sweet.  It’s seldom that we can draw a direct line between this and that.  My desire to buy the dress was only made meaningful by my mother’s death and my daughter’s birth.  The dress was the material evidence of not only my loss, but the way my mother’s love had carried me forth beyond her.  Her life extending years into my own in ways I never could imagine the moment that red dress caught my eye.  And seeing my daughter on the second Christmas of her life wearing the red dress from the grandmother she never knew who bought it for her, returned something to me that I thought had been lost forever.”

“We cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives,” continued Sugar.  “We live and have experiences.  We leave people we love and get left by them.  People we didn’t know will come into our lives to.  But our work here is to keep faith with that.  To put it in a box and wait… to trust that one day we will know what it means so that when the ordinary miraculous incident is revealed, we will be there standing before the baby girl in a pretty dress - grateful for the smallest things.  Yours, Sugar.”

REVIEW: "Tiny Beautiful Things" Is The Best Pandemic Theatre I

Some of the questions are extremely moving.  Some of the answers are tremendously powerful.  The only downside is that there may be too many of them.  Even though it’s nice to know people everywhere are going through many of the same problems we face each day, it can be overwhelming to hear 90 minutes of such brutal honesty.

But throughout the 90 minutes are absolutely incredible performances.  Laiona Michelle is remarkable, simply remarkable.  Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.  But John Bolger, Kally Duling, and Ryan George all take turns at center stage with gripping moments and truly great performances as well.  There’s a reason why George Street Playhouse has returned to them for several casts.

As live theatre slowly returns, Tiny Beautiful Things will be a reminder that art always finds a way.  This is not just another production on screen.  It’s so well done it’s practically a new genre of theatre.  Highly recommended!

REVIEW: "Tiny Beautiful Things" Is The Best Pandemic Theatre I

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 05/17/2021

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