Letters are such a great narrative device. Think of the notes between Abigail and John Adams in 1776 or the chats by the far-flung addicts in Water by the Spoonful or the personal ads from lonely truck drivers in The Few. There’s a vulnerability that’s hard to reach with just dialogue.
But what if there’s nothing beyond the device? Is that enough? That’s the question surrounding Tiny Beautiful Things.
Set in a small apartment office/kitchen strewn with toys, the play follows an advice columnist, pseudonym Sugar (Opal Alladin). It’s unclear why she’s taken on this role, other than to distract her from the novel she’s not writing, but she flings herself into it with tremendous abandon.
On the other side of the ledger, a series of letter writers (Keith Powell, Avi Roque and Dorcas Sowunmi) ask Sugar’s advice on life’s dark issues: Should I cheat on my spouse? How do I recover from sexual abuse or the loss of a loved one? Why is everything so fucked?
These stories are heartfelt and often painful. They remind me of the old saying: If you put all the world’s problems in a bag, you’d be lucky to get your own back. The emotional content is deep.
Sugar responds with insights built on her own troubled past, which she freely shares. Through this give and take, we gain insights into Sugar’s life and struggles.
But there’s something missing. While we learn about everyone’s dismal pasts and possibly hopeful futures, there is no present. It’s like Sugar is on a space station far removed from the world. How is she adapting her past struggles to a successful life? Other than writing an advice column, who knows?
Which is a shame. These stories are poignant, even gut wrenching. They remind us of the pain people successfully endure and somehow move beyond. But there’s no actual story here, just a collection of agonizing vignettes and hopeful pep talks.
The cast is all-in, and there’s obvious chemistry, particularly between Alladin and Powell, who often seem like flip sides of a similar painful history. The direction is warm, hopeful, benevolent. The letter writers start on the periphery before merging into Sugar’s space. There’s a lot to like about this production.
But I didn’t want to like Tiny Beautiful Things, I wanted to love it. I wanted to love it so badly it kind of hurts.