Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company kicks off season with a heart-felt drama

When it comes to intimate life struggles, turning to an online stranger for advice seems questionable. And yet, thousands turned to Cheryl Strayed from 2010 to 2012 for the powerful advice she offered over the internet in her role as Sugar for the anonymous advice column, “Dear Sugar.”

Tiny Beautiful Things, a stage adaptation of Strayed’s book by the same name, shares the real-life letters written to Sugar (portrayed by Diana Dresser) and the shockingly vulnerable, empathetic ways in which she responds. Whether you’re looking for a reminder about our shared humanity or just in the mood for a play with a lot of heart, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things (directed by Rebecca Remaly) is a must see.

Just don’t forget the tissues.

The play opens in Strayed’s living room as she agrees to take on the role of Sugar. The benefits? No pay or byline — just sincere communication between her and the people at the end of the notes in her inbox. The letters rush in, the notification chime dinging incessantly from her laptop, and Sugar begins to read.

The stories are overtaken by the voice of one of three actors (Josh Hartwell, Rodney Lizcano and Simone St. John), who are positioned around the room and flawlessly assume the identity of various letter writers, regardless of age or gender. Some writers wonder what is love and what’s it all about? Others ask: Should I share my story of sexual assault?

The play culminates in a letter from Living Dead Dad, whose 22-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver. Sugar — pacing around the set that is part living room and part kitchen — doesn’t respond in the ways we might expect. Rather than looking down on her advice-seekers from a throne of sagacity, she reaches into herself and shares intensely personal stories — the ones layered in pain and heartbreak — and reminds her audience that we aren’t alone in how we feel. And we never have been.

Tiny Beautiful Things cast

From left, Rodney Lizcano, Simone St. John, and Josh Hartwell as Letter Writers, and Diana Dresser as ‘Sugar’ in BETC’s production of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (photography: Michael Ensminger)

A world of letters

Despite the lack of a traditional plot, the play never loses our attention as it moves from letter to letter for 90 minutes with no intermission, thanks in part to the cast’s adept delivery. Rather than maintaining separation between Sugar and the letter writers, we see them speak directly to each other, and sometimes even touch — as though the invisible thread of an email has connected them physically.

The letter writers exist in Sugar’s own space — helping her make sandwiches for her kids’ lunches, folding the laundry that sits on the couch. It’s a reminder to us that, other than their anonymity, there are no boundaries between Sugar and her advice seekers. She has invited them into her home and her story, as they have with her. Other times, Sugar speaks directly to the audience, sharing words that we, too, may need to hear.

If at times it feels like you are sitting in Sugar’s living room rather than theater seats, it’s because, by extension, you are. Set in the small Grace Gamm Theater at the Dairy Arts Center, the set is a convincingly lived-in family room — half kitchen, half den — that bleeds into the first row of seats. From plates used for pasta night still on the table to hash marks measuring the height of a toddler on a wooden door frame in the back, no detail was too small for set designer Tina Anderson.

The costumes, designed by Sasha Georges and ranging from pajamas to sweatshirts, work together with the set to create an intimate environment that expertly invites the vulnerability expressed by the cast and the empathy felt by the audience.

This feeling of empathy, and ultimately relatability invoked by the performance is what makes it so powerful. Even if you haven’t experienced the specific situation itself, you have likely experienced the feelings described in the letters to Sugar, or in her replies. And herein lies the biggest strength of Tiny Beautiful Things: the way it leaves you feeling perfectly human. For this emotional and captivating foray into the human experience, Tiny Beautiful Things isn’t a show to miss.

Maybe writing to that stranger online isn’t so questionable after all.

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Photos: Michael Ensminger

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