by Chris Tucci
Let this review serve as a much needed trigger warning for those who choose to see Chester Theatre Company’s Tiny Beautiful Things by Nia Vardalos at Hancock Shaker Village. Sexual assault, incest, abortion, miscarriage, physical and mental abuse, and the death of children are the subjects of the letters Sugar (Tara Franklin) answers as an advice columnist for a blog. That no content warning was present was odd from a show that takes such pains with the details. The set is meticulously cluttered with the mess of a working writer, mother, and wife. But, the audience is presented with a parade of trauma, each more heartbreaking than the last.
There is real pain in the letters, written by real people, read by turns by an ensemble of three actors who portray a variety of strangers seeking answers from Sugar. Each actor in turn is given ample space to monologue, as the play rarely engages in any true dialogue. We are not asked to guess what’s next, but lulled into a fugue state of questions and answers- all in a similar repetitive rhythm and tone.
The actors make the most of what they are given. Candace Barrett Birk as Letter Writer #2 stands out among the ensemble as an actor willing to be messy and vulnerable. She finds ease within the language and demands of playing multiple characters. Sugar is presented as complete from the start, her only conflict is quickly resolved in the first moment of the play. Despite a valiant effort by Franklin, she’s given no opportunity often afforded the main character- transformation.
In a world where regulations and rules for actors on stage are constantly shifting, this play likely seemed a safe choice. What could be safer than a play about answering letters from a blog? The direction by Daniel Elihu Kramer feels muffled by a play unable to match his desire for us to “share our fears and our love.”
The scenic design by Juliana von Haubrich gives us the loudest metaphor of the evening. As the stories are told, the mess of a life is carefully put back into neat and tidy order. Toys are stuffed into boxes. Laundry is folded. At the end we are left with a metaphor- all the pain will be neatly tucked and folded away.
This play is not about “the simple beauty of being human.” This play is about how real people will look anywhere for a balm to soothe their breaking hearts, even a blog. Audiences deserve to know what they’re really in for.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Nia Vardalos runs from August 18-29 by Chester Theatre Company at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA. Director: Daniel Elihu Kramer. Tara Franklin (Sugar), James Barry (Letter Writer #1), Candace Barrett Birk (Letter Writer #2), and Taavon Gamble (Letter Writer #3). Lara Dubin (Lighting Designer), Juliana von Haubrich (Scenic Designer), Nathan Leigh (Sound Designer), Charles Schoonmaker (Costume Designer), Leslie Sears (Costume Support) Leslie Sears (Stage Manager) and Keri Schultz (Assistant Stage Manager).
Individual ticket prices are $47.50 and are available at the door or by calling the box office. Chester and Middlefield residents and those holding EBT cards may purchase $10 tickets, and members of the military and their families may purchase $15 tickets. Student Rush $10 tickets are available day of show in person or on the phone. Tickets may be purchased online at chestertheatre.org, or by calling 413.354.7771. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available.
Run time 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.