Chicago Theater Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS (Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 14, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Not to be confused with anything else, Tiny Beautiful Things is a theatrical curiosity, fluidly blocked but dramatically static as it unleashes a swirling cascade of questions and answers. The latter, culled from 2010 to 2012, come from “Sugar,” an advice columnist of the Miss Lonelyhearts persuasion who wrote for The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. Unpaid and anonymous, this very intuitive writer garnered national attention from Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 book, a New York Times best-seller.

Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), this dialectical confection delivers some good goods in Vanessa Stalling’s spirited staging, a Chicago premiere by Victory Gardens Theater. But, mind you, a little of this hyper-earnestness and industrial-strength sincerity goes a long way: Eighty minutes are quite sufficient to sample Sugar’s wares.

A kind of thespian call-and-response, yin-and-yang revival meeting, the entire one-act consists of dramatized self-help therapy, with the always absorbing Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sugar and August Forman, Eric Slater, and Jessica Dean Turner as assorted letter writers assembled in Courtney O’Neill’s spiffy coffee house.

Sugar’s petitioners reveal the classic problems of anguished souls confronted with infidelity, the loss or lack of love (“a loaded word”), the fear of forgiving, emotional paralysis, and suicidal thoughts triggered by toxic depression. Their code throughout is “WTF!,” while Sugar’s solution is, like Walt Whitman, to embrace her own contradictions and to make connections that can break a pointless past.

An Olympic-class listener, Sugar, it seems, has been tested as much as her advice-seekers, losing a mother in non-negotiable sorrow, taking heroin, enduring incest. These, she says, qualify her to share secrets from strangers. She will fix their frustrations by pushing past their pain and encouraging them to say “I will be open, I will be there, you go on.” She labors to defeat her readers’ self-fulfilling self-hatred and the too convenient habits that nurture neuroses. The mantra “I am forgiven” is a noble tonic.

Specializing in enlightening illustrations, most of them powerfully personal, Sugar insists that it’s the “tiny beautiful things” that make up love that pull us from the abyss. When we reach out to seize our desires or just to connect, we can let go of what never helped us anyway, hopefully leaving behind our weakest traits and worst vulnerabilities. You don’t need to be broken, not when there’s a “living columnist who doesn’t know but who will see what she can find.” The memory of her mother serves as a compass through a score of storms.

No question, sometimes this tough-loving affirmation comes close to clichés. There’s an occasional hint of smugness on Sugar’s side that doesn’t balance the desperations on the others’. Too much of the grist for Sugar’s mill sounds more like a successful audiobook than a drama. (The only conflict here is purely anecdotal.)

So it’s wise that Sugar, Strayed and Vardalos ground their combined counsel in the letter-writers’ actual agonies. Equally keeping it real, Brooks and her endangered correspondents are always in the moment, caught in a feedback loop that amounts to healing.

Considering that in America 2019 the art of empathy has fallen into disuse or even detestation, more than before we need to re-value “tiny beautiful things” to count our blessings.

photos by Liz Lauren

Tiny Beautiful Things
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3 (check for exceptions)
ends on October 13, 2019 EXTENDED to October 20, 2019
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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