OpenStage Theatre kicks off live theatre with a play in the park

Tiny Beautiful Things is one of the hot plays of the past few years, being staged at several Colorado theatres before the pandemic. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, who for years anonymously penned the “Dear Sugar” advice column, the stories are adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos.

OpenStage Theatre and Company returns to live theatre with what may be the perfect venue to bring this show to life: the backyard area behind the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.

Behind the museum is a lush, green lawn. Next to it is a sidewalk and next to that is the Poudre River. On the other side of the stage is busy College Avenue. I thought perhaps the traffic might interfere with the sound and enjoyment of the play, but once it started, I forgot all about street noise because I was so engrossed in this engaging and relatable play. Along with bug spray and sunscreen, audience members are encouraged to bring either chairs or blankets to comfortably take in the play.

With only four actors, a set that never changes and no intermission, Tiny Beautiful Things packs a punch I wasn’t expecting. The entire play consists solely of three actors writing letters to Sugar seeking her advice, and Sugar (Nicole Gawronski) responding to those letters. At first I was skeptical about how this might all work, but the engrossing material and strong acting had me all in from the first letter. The three actors playing the advice seekers transform themselves into different ages, genders, races, and backgrounds simply by the content of their letter, their mannerisms and voice.

Sugar opens herself up in her responses by sharing with us her different life experiences. Indeed, it is only from experience that one can offer advice, and no one seems to know this better than Sugar. Gawronski does a marvelous job as Sugar, quickly becoming our best friend as she recounts her particular struggles in the hopes that sharing what she’s endured might help her advice seekers. She is vulnerable and quirky and ultimately thoughtful and kind as she offers advice to strangers desperate for help.

During this emotionally charged play, I had to hold back a gasp while crying about a particular piece of advice in which Sugar tells of finding a red baby dress at a yard sale with her mother. She bought it, but at the time wasn’t quite sure why. Years later, after her mother has died quite young, Sugar breaks down, realizing that her mother will never see that dress on any of Sugar’s children. This letter and advice were particularly relatable to me, and I was glad that I brought tissues. Throughout the entire play, there is at least one letter I think every audience member could relate to, and as I looked around, I found I was definitely not the only one crying due to the powerful and vulnerable acting of the players.

If you’ve got the opportunity to view this unique play staged in the beautiful backyard of The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, do not miss it. While heavy and intense, there are also lighthearted moments and laughter throughout. Along with the location, the play itself is worthwhile and enjoyable. You won’t soon be forgetting the memorable characters seeking help from this stranger willing to share her life to help others.

There is a content warning due to the difficult subject matter of the advice sought. Topics of concern range from sexual, child and drug abuse and for this reason it is recommended for those 16 and older.