A friend of mine, Dr. Joy Browne, who died suddenly this past year, was a psychiatrist who held forth on radio, and for a stretch on TV, answering inquiries from listeners seeking help. Her advice usually seemed to be solid and based on her values as applied to other people’s problems. I thought of her anew on watching the revival of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Nia Vardalos’s stage adaptation based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Vardalos.
With a compelling stage presence, Vardalos portrays Sugar, the correspondence name for the mother of two who takes on the challenge and responsibility for becoming an advice counselor via computer. There is no pay and she has no professional qualification for this, other than being a writer, but Sugar is filled with good will and good sense as we see her fielding questions in the setting of her home, convincingly designed by Rachel Hauck.
A cast of three, Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour and Natalie Woolams-Torres, represent the assorted questioners by voicing their inquiries, and Kail, also the director, keeps them in motion a good deal so the play doesn’t become static.
What’s different about Sugar is that she not only advises, but explores her own feelings and problems with those with whom she corresponds. That isn’t what those who dispense advice usually do. Vardalos puts plenty of feeling and sincerity into Sugar’s personal responses.
Occasionally the back and forth becomes a bit wearisome, as all of the inquiries aren’t dealing with momentous problems, but there are also significantly poignant moments. The most emotional sequence for me was the long litany of questions posed numerically and spoken with a great sense of loss by Cañez. Desperate for some sort of solace and direction for coping, the troubled man recounts how he lost his son, who was killed by a speeding driver. Still grieving, he feels that his life has been shattered. How can he go on? Sugar answers point by point with empathy and wisdom, and the tension is gripping.
Each member of an audience may relate best to discussion of situations akin to one’s own problem areas, and in the course of the play the content runs the gamut of human experience and difficulties. Sugar could really turn pro. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed October 4, 2017.