‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ is an impressive take on true confessions

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Theatrical Outfit’s show is based on ‘Wild’ memoirist Cheryl Strayed’s time as an internet advice columnist.

“Tiny Beautiful Things,” onstage at the renovated and reopened Theatrical Outfit downtown, accomplishes what all great theater tries to do, yet it does so in a surprisingly novel way.

Great theater aims to do more than entertain. Theater is an engine for compassion, challenging audiences to connect with perspectives they’ve never seen, experiences they’ve never had before. The best storytelling teaches us that we share the same emotions, even when we haven’t walked the same paths. We connect first with the characters in front of us. And when we’re in a room with an audience, laughing at the same jokes, gasping at the same twists or applauding the same monologue, it shows another level of how life can be a shared experience, even though we are all individual.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Usually, theater accomplishes this by showing us fictional characters in a confined setting and situation, colliding, conversing and connecting with each other in tangible ways.

With its structure and premise, “Tiny Beautiful Things” doesn’t take that path. But it evokes deep feelings. It is a powerful, moving show.

Based on “Wild” memoirist Cheryl Strayed’s time as an internet advice columnist, the script by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) uses the text of real letters and Strayed’s replies to fill out most of the narrative. Three performers — Candy McLellan, Robin Bloodworth and Stephen Ruffin, all taking on dozens of roles — speak in full, uninterrupted paragraphs to “Dear Sugar” most of the time, and Sugar, played by a phenomenal Maria Rodriguez-Sager, replies with a personal essay, rather than back-and-forth in sentences like regular conversation.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

As a result, the show often feels more like a live-lit show akin to The Moth than a play, and it ambitiously tackles a full spectrum of issues, such as depression, lust, drug abuse, miscarriage, sexual abuse, divorce, adultery, romance, family and grief.

This epistolary structure works very, very well. It is not performed stiffly, like a reading. Instead, the performers emerge from and then move among the audience. They enter and exit Sugar’s living space, with their letter’s comfort level reflecting how easily they interact with both her and her environment.

The direction from Amber McGinnis is masterful here, taking an Internet-based premise involving letters from strangers that could be off-putting and instead making it personal, inviting and cozy.

The actual plot of the show is threadbare. A writer, taking care of her family at home, takes on a non-paying gig as an Internet advice columnist, and her readers try to goad her into revealing her true identity, as she reveals more and more of herself in her prose. The characters only chat in normal cadence during these interludes. The main body of the script are the true confessions, and they are what should drive audiences to buy tickets and see “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

Vardalos’ script, as expected, contains laughs. But this show may provide one of the best, cathartic cries you will ever have in an auditorium.

The set, designed by Shannon Robert to look and feel like Sugar’s cluttered living room is inviting people into her life from cyberspace, expands out into the audience, some of whom sit on her couches. We’re surrounded by Sugar’s lamps and soft lighting, even in the upper levels of the space. The effect provides warmth and intimacy.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

It feels like the audience is eavesdropping on the best gossip or hearing a particularly juicy podcast, acted out in front of us. The tone easily shifts from heavy to fun, then comic to tragic without feeling uneven.

Toni Sterling’s lighting design underlines these shifts, providing different levels of spotlight on performers when they’re being harsh or calm.

Bloodworth, McLellan and Ruffin all get spectacular moments performing these gutwrenching monologues from folks in need, particularly letters from a grieving father, a kleptomaniac and a trans youth reconciling with parents.

The full cast deserves praise for taking on this challenging script, for memorizing it could not have been easy. It doesn’t provide the usual cues for performers since it is not conversational or brief. The show runs 90 minutes without intermission, yet it never feels like a lecture. The performers keep it moving by exploring the space, and they fill it with life.

But Rodriguez-Sager, as the one constant character of Sugar, is a powerhouse here. Because of the show’s unique construction, the work Rodriguez-Sager does feels deceptively simple. Sugar is the voice of authority, the audience conduit. Yet Rodriguez-Sager reveals so much about Sugar’s difficult life and perseverance through her replies, anchoring the entire play with work that is heartfelt, gleeful, incredibly vulnerable and devastating.

There is so much hope, so much feeling and such human connection here. “Tiny Beautiful Things” is must-see.


“Tiny Beautiful Things”

Through April 23. $15-$65. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.

Bottom line: A powerful, moving show that is a must-see.