Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Tiny Beautiful Things
Director Ken Rus Schmoll has made a winning decision to present the 80-minute piece outside of a familiar-looking New England home. Designer Kimie Nishikawa provides a dwelling which is painted in hues of brown and gray. The porch is wooden and utilized. The choice of an exterior for dialogue exchange draws in the viewer.
The actors traverse a worn lawn as Sugar (Cindy Cheung) sometimes sits at a picnic table or rises to converse with either a letter writer or theatergoers who observe. The people providing material for response, those who have queried Sugar, include actors Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos and Brian Sgambati. Casting for this show is precise and all are fine tuned. Sgambati is middle-aged, wondering about attraction to someone outside of his marriage, trying to make sense of it all. Ramos, poignantly, suffered a miscarriage which haunted her acutely for months.
It does seem to one watching this play that those with the personal issues and problems really see Sugar, but they are writers who are sending in their questions. Hence, they wonder what she looks like and, finally, what her real name is. Still, to theatergoers, those seeking counsel appear to be relating to the helpful advisor.
The Long Wharf production very much benefits from Cheung's interpretation of Sugar. She is comfortable, affable and welcoming. Her Sugar is a woman who still navigates hurdles tossed before her as she moves through many journeys. She reaches for her own experiences in order to assist others. The evening begins with a letter focusing on confusion about love. This just might be universal, applying to those on stage, people in the audience, and so forth.
Ken Rus Schmoll brings a show which is lively, funny and, perhaps, not as tearful as one might have anticipated. All to the good. It is certainly genuine but avoids the trap of leaning too heavily upon melodramatic waves of feeling. The director and his actors are animated and authentic but stay away from heightened performance.
Toward the end of the show, Sgambati goes through a numbered list of things which describe his life and its evolution. Sugar then addresses each concern. While this has import, it takes concentration to stay with the writer's issues and then the advice columnist's answers. The back-and-forth here is not as naturally evocative as is much of the play. Until this time, the presentation's arc is easy and fluent.
As one who typically avoided Dear Abby and the like, I brought some resistance to the play. If Ann Landers still leaves me lukewarm, Tiny Beautiful Things, on stage, is sweetly engaging. While those writing in wish to know Sugar, it is the actress who draws in anyone who will give this production a try. Cheung does not present an all-knowing individual who has tried-and-true words for anyone in need. Instead, this Sugar is someone who is very much like the rest of us, a woman who is getting through, getting by, and has a gift when asked to relate to other human beings in need.
Tiny Beautiful Things, through March 10, 2019, at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven CT. For tickets, call 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.