Portlanders know exactly where they are when they first see Megan Wilkerson’s set for Tiny Beautiful Things at Portland Center Stage. It’s a big old Craftsman bungalow in Northeast Portland–the kind of place that invites you in and wraps its arms around you. The kitchen is updated, and the place shows signs of small children. Sugar/Cheryl Strayed (Dana Green) prowls the set picking up stray items, fixing a snack, folding laundry.
And then the cacophony begins. The play’s action takes place at night, when the kids are in bed and the house is settled, when Sugar’s computer pings announce the arrival of emails, and the advice columnist goes one-on-one with confused, often desperate souls seeking answers.
Leif Norby, Lisa Renee Pitts, and Brian Michael Smith assume the roles of letter writers, circling and pouring out their problems as Dear Sugar and her welcoming home embrace them with stories of her own. It’s a different kind of play that succeeds marvelously and on many levels.
“The letters to Sugar are a glimpse into the soul of America in the middle of the night,” says director Rose Riordan. “Creating the space for all these voices to live is a tricky task.” But if the kitchen and Sugar’s soul are large enough, everyone gets in. They can prepare a snack, use the bathroom, lounge on the sofa, and reveal what’s in their hearts. The audience can laugh and cry with them. It all works somehow.
Tiny Beautiful Things is based on Portland author Cheryl Strayed‘s book of the same name. Strayed wrote the book while awaiting the publication of her breakthrough memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail–a book in which she at last came to terms with her mother’s death, and in doing so found herself. Her words, taken from her advice columns, offer profound wisdom and profound love.
The play was co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos (writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and was adapted for the stage by Vardalos. It premiered Off-Broadway at Public Theatre in 2016.
This is a tiny, beautiful play that will surprise you and bring you to tears as those voices from the dark reach out for love, hope, and redemption. Tiny Beautiful Things runs through March 31 at Portland Center Stage at the Armory.