By Kimberly Rau
Meet Cheryl. She’s an author procrastinating on her next novel when she receives an invitation to take over an anonymous internet advice column. Initially, she balks at taking on another project (unpaid, at that), but then agrees. The letters begin pouring in, ranging from funny (my girlfriend has a Santa Claus fetish) to tragic (I lost my son and don’t know how to live), and Sugar (the column’s pseudonym) finds herself sharing her own life while advising her writers.
And in the end, most of her responses seem to surround learning to forgive and love the most unlovable person of all: ourselves.
Based on the real-life writer Cheryl Strayed’s time as an advice columnist with online literary magazine The Rumpus, Tiny Beautiful Things is told from Sugar’s perspective, with an ensemble cast of five ascending gender, age and circumstance to read letters from all over.
Under the direction of Curt Columbus, this tight-knit cast takes an already compelling script and makes it sing, engaging the audience from first line to curtain call. It’s performed on Baron Pugh’s set, designed to look like the Chicago Post Office, fitting for someone in the business of being inundated with letters.
The ensemble’s lines are entirely drawn from letters; Sugar’s lines are conveyed through advice column responses. Actress Angela Brazil plays Sugar with a vulnerable, raw understanding of the human condition. She delivers a particularly graphic and emotional monologue about two-thirds of the way through the play that had the audience in tears. Her performance is nothing short of breathtaking. She’s been part of Trinity’s Resident Acting Company since 2000, and it’s easy to see why.
The small ensemble plays a variety of roles seamlessly, showcasing great talent. Trinity veteran Brian McEleney is tasked with presenting, among many others, a man who tragically lost his son to a drunk driver and can only send in a letter in list form. He also deftly portrays a woman trying to recover from what her friends dismiss as “only” a miscarriage.
Jenna Lea Scott plays, among others, a letter-writer who sends in multiple letters that simply ask “what the f–k” over and over, but Sugar’s eventual response is much less pithy (the aforementioned monologue). She also plays a moody teenager and a bored housewife who does-but-doesn’t want to cheat on her husband with a new crush. This is her Trinity debut; I sincerely hope we see more of her in the future.
Marcel Mascaro plays the original columnist who passes the job off to Cheryl, as well as a man questioning how to meet his girlfriend’s unusual expectations, among others. Having last seen him as the literal devil in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Heart at Wilbury, I was once again impressed with his exceptional acting range and ability.
Phyllis Kay, a member of Trinity’s Resident Acting Company, starts out as an angry voice, demanding to know who Sugar is (who are you? Who do you think you are? Are you even qualified to do this?), but also plays a variety of other roles with pathos and depth, bringing herself to tears, and taking the audience along with her.
Stephen Berenson, another longtime Trinity performer, reads letters that involve a man who doesn’t know how to tell he’s in love, and someone else stuck in an unconventional love triangle (or whatever you call it when neither of the women you’ve slept with want to sleep with you anymore). He plays a teenage girl. Whatever it is he’s doing at any given moment, he does it masterfully.
And finally, there’s Gunnar Manchester, who ties the entire show together through violin music and song, the perfect finishing touch to a powerful performance piece.
This show is the therapy that we should probably all be seeking, and is relatable no matter where you are in life. If you’re in your 20s, you’ll hopefully take something away from portions like “advice to my younger self.” If you’re past your 20s, hopefully you’ll be able to find truth and laughter in your past, as the audience on press night did. If you’ve lost a child, you’ll probably ache as you relate to those letters; if you haven’t, you’ll connect with the humanity before you nonetheless. Working on your relationship? Working on yourself? Finding yourself in an obscure love triangle? It doesn’t matter, you’ll understand even if you’re not. And that’s the beauty of this play, a tiny, beautiful thing that continues to resonate on the drive home, the next day and, if you’re very lucky, until the messages of love, forgiveness and acceptance make a permanent home in your heart,
Tiny Beautiful Things is presented in one act with no intermission and runs through Feb. 13 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets may be purchased online at trinityrep.com/ticketoffice; by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; or by calling 401.351.4242. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test required; masks required while in the building and during the performance.