Reviewer: Lisa Purchase Kelly
Venue: Malcolm Field Theatre
“Dear Sugar, … I was ambushed by emotions at the quiet drama and naked truth of Tiny Beautiful Things at SVSU. I thought I was reasonably detached and even preoccupied when I went into the theatre, but found myself struggling to hold back tears more than once. Others may not be so lucky. How can a true story about total strangers feel so profoundly personal?
Sincerely, — Bowled Over in the Back Row”
David Rzeszutek directs and four young women star in Saginaw Valley State University’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the New York Times best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). SVSU student actors Lexie Schultz, Brielle Myles-Williams, Scout McCulloch, and Dana Samalik bring to life an unpaid online advice columnist (Strayed, who went by the pseudonym “Sugar”) and the voices of her questioning readers. “Sugar” is no “Dear Abby” or “Miss Manners”, and she pulls no punches getting to the point. She reaches into her own past traumas and experiences to provide specific examples, profound connections, and humorous retorts to her readers.
Placed entirely in the writer’s kitchen and living room, the simple but layered set serves the intimacy of the story as the various voices of wisdom-seekers circle through Sugar’s inner space, embodied by the three actors portraying dozens of different supplicants. Dazzlingly precise projections make the set flow and flower from scene to scene, season to season, sentiment to sentiment. I was swept up in the beauty of blooming flowers throughout one particularly heavy scene, and almost laughed out loud with relief as the scene shifted to Christmas, bringing snow and refreshingly light-hearted quandaries to clear the air.
Lexie Schultz is disarmingly understated as the anonymous “Sugar”. She catches us unawares as she stands there in a flannel and sweatpants — looking every bit like someone NOT putting on a show, NOT acting — and then the most unexpected wisdom and humor and dignity and empathy pour out of the character’s mouth. Ms. Schultz beautifully portrays someone who is listening, thinking, reacting, and responding spontaneously. She appears astonishingly genuine, which is just right for this role. Ms. Myles-Williams, Ms. McCulloch, and Ms. Samalik imbue their many characters with individual looks and mannerisms which differentiate the various voices seeking Sugar’s advice, giving their brief appearances enough weight and personality to connect with. I have to give these four women credit for managing such weighty material so gracefully.
Here is the mystique of this script: in the very personal details, it manages to find the universal in the specific. While blatantly about these specific problems and questions, the script touches on the fears and longings we all hold in our own specific ways … rejection, loss, and most of all, love. While I may not have experienced the specific scenarios being discussed on the stage, I have certainly felt the feelings being so capably spoken and portrayed there.
If all of this sounds … depressing? heavy? boring? that is incorrect. The script is so good, and is so well served by the actors (and the set, and the production in general) that you will be swept away by the story as 90-minute production (no intermission) goes by in a flash. You will find yourself leaning in to catch every word, as every word is worth catching.
If you’re a fan of good writing, good acting, and good storytelling, please go see SVSU’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things at the Malcom Ford Theatre. Tiny Beautiful Things runs Wednesday through Sunday, October 5th through 9th. Showtimes are 7:30 W-Sa and 3:00 Sunday. Ticket cost is $15, and tickets can be purchased at (https://www.etix.com/ticket/v/14187).