Tiny Beautiful Things has returned in quiet triumph to the Public Theater after last season’s sold-out engagement in the tiny Shiva Theater. Co-conceived with Marshall Heyman and director Thomas Kail, actress Nia Vardalos adapted novelist Cheryl Strayed’s anthologized advice columns (“Dear Sugar”) into a play of small moments. The play (now settled into the Public’s Newman Theater) experiments with intimacy and distance, electronic communications and human connections, and how we conceive face-to-face feelings in a cyber world. As in all resonant theater, the play provides insight into both the characters on stage and in the audience.
The dramatic frame is simple: Strayed (Vardalos) wanders downstairs, late at night in her middle-class house, to take stock: feeling guilty about not writing the novel that beckons to her; picking up after her family; musing to herself. The play takes place within one work session that represents many, in those hours when the house is quiet and her husband and children are asleep.
Strayed’s habit of late-night, solitary work shifts when a colleague invites her (over email) to take over an advice column he’d been writing anonymously. For a time, we come to understand, her columns, and the lives and crises they address, take over her writing life. Three actors (Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Natalie Woolams-Torres) smoothly assume the multiple personalities and stories, fluidly portraying gender and age and offering their voices as a chorus or else in heartbreaking monologues. At the center of it all, Vardalos traces a graceful arc: from bemused procrastinator to active, empathetic listener, to deeply revealing confessor.
Soon, the familiar trope of the online communicator — keyboard-typing writer looking down, speaking to herself, clacking, clacking, clacking — is relinquished, and the laptop closes. Vadalos, and her fellow performers as the many characters, speak to the air, to the audience, and sometimes to each other, yet they rarely interact. She conveys a sense of deep listening to the advice-seekers, each rapt in their own world. As the show continues, each performer must confront and deliver monologues designed to move us — recounting rapes and abuse, decisions to leave relationships, coming to terms with devastating loss.
Amid such large topics, small actions speak volumes: watch one character make a snack or a drink or pack the next day’s lunchboxes or futz with a toy on a table. By the end of this 90-minute one-act, we’ve learned not only what Strayed says and writes, but, equally important, how she thinks. As potent as any email correspondence is her backstory — what we learn of our narrator and her renewed faith in “tiny beautiful things.”
Strayed’s advice columns (and book) have inspired many, but notably the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, to rhapsodic praise of her insights, empathy and embracing worldview. Eustis was introduced to her work by director Kail in 2015, according to a program note; part of her power, he writes, is how it is passed “hand to hand, part of a gift economy that is larger than the price on its cover.”
The set and sound designs add subtle dimensions to the production. Rachel Hauck’s pared-down scenic aesthetic yields a jumbled, lived-in family home, albeit one with shadowy corners. Perhaps ironically, Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design trades on the unnerving, powerful density of silence.
The potently claustrophobic and dark presentation last season, at the Shiva, captured the late-night setting perhaps better than the more conventional proscenium of the Newman. Where the set in the Shiva enveloped the actors who seem to drift in and out of the walls, the actors in the Newman are all clearly visible even when fading to the edge of the playing area. Indeed, the set in the Newman is more brightly lit, preventing the dream-state suspension achieved in the Shiva. Yet even with these quibbles, dialogue and design are delicately calibrated in Tiny Beautiful Things, supporting a story told in a truly digital space.