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Chance Theater’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’: beautiful acting of a savior story

From left: Jonathon Lamer, Aubrey Saverino and Sam Mistry in Chance Theater's "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Photo by Francis Gacad)

In her 2012 book “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Cheryl Strayed recounts giving online advice to anonymous letter writers under the pseudonym Sugar. The book was adapted for the stage in 2016 by Nia Vardalos, who created “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and there is currently a show based on the book streaming on Hulu. It’s clearly a work that resonates over time, allowing us to experience the real-life problems of others.

Continuing at Chance Theater through this weekend, “Tiny Beautiful Things” brings Sugar and her letter writers to life thanks to four excellent actors, especially Aubrey Saverino in the lead role, all fluidly directed by Katie Chidester. But the story itself falls a tiny bit flat on stage, casting Sugar as a savior who helps the suffering masses rather than a character we have reason to care about because she suffers now.


From left: Jennifer Richardson, Jonathon Lamer, Aubrey Saverino (seated) and Sam Mistry in Chance Theater's "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Photo by Francis Gacad)

The play opens with a woman (Saverino) who seems to have writer’s block, shutting her laptop and instead picking up her children’s dishes and folding laundry. Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt (costumes by Gwen Sloan), the woman seems sympathetic with a spry energy.

The set itself (designed by Kristin Campbell Coyne) is enjoyable — a detailed kitchen and living room with nearly everything bathed in warm orange, from couch pillows to refrigerator. Nevertheless, the play might have the same audience impact if it were an audio book or podcast.


When a fellow writer sends an email offering the woman a gig writing online advice as “Dear Sugar,” she hesitates at first and then takes it, perhaps thinking it will either fuel her other writing or at least give her an excuse for not doing it. Soon, three other actors — Jonathon Lamer, Sam Mistry and Jennifer Richardson — enter her home metaphorically as the various letter writers seeking help.

From left: Sam Mistry and Aubrey Saverino in Chance Theater's "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Photo by Francis Gacad)

It takes only a minute for Sugar to find her voice and make the wise choice of basing her advice on her own experiences, which she weaves into well-crafted narrative responses that ring true. Based on the expressions of the other actors, her answers seem to go over well with the various people who need help.

This pattern of questions and answers continues for the rest of the play, the letters both humorous and heartbreaking. But though we see Sugar making lunches for her young children, we otherwise don’t see her put out by answering all the letters. Instead of costing her anything, she seems to enjoy helping strangers through her writing, and she always has the last word.


Some of the letter writers push back on her at first, asking her why she sometimes advises people to leave their marriages and sometimes to stay. But she quickly quashes any doubts about her “radical sincerity” in answering them based on her own painful life.


From left, foreground: Jennifer Richardson and Aubrey Saverino in Chance Theater's "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Photo by Francis Gacad)

We learn, for instance, that she became addicted to heroin after her mother died of cancer at age 45, and that her mother’s last words to her were “love, love, love” — made palpable by Richardson portraying the mother in her hospital bed — even though she didn’t feel that love while her mother was alive. Her mother also was apparently unaware of the sexual abuse her daughter endured as a child, though Sugar credits her for being the source of her compassion.


We also learn Sugar mentored extremely at-risk girls for a time, who she says grew to love and appreciate her for helping them write in notebooks and take charge of their lives. She meets one of them later working at a Taco Bell who no longer hides herself under a hoodie, asking her former mentor to validate that she “definitely did come through.”


And we learn Sugar had entered her first marriage very young, finally responding to the word “Go!” she kept hearing in her head, and eventually meeting her second husband and learning she doesn’t have to seem broken to be loved.


From left: Aubrey Saverino and Jonathon Lamer in Chance Theater's "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Photo by Francis Gacad)

All this life experience allows Sugar to give profound advice about relationships, kleptomania, narcissistic parents and even the loss of children — the most poignant topic of the letters she receives. But we don’t see her suffering now, in the present. Her answers emerge from a space of having healed, though we never learn how she did so.


Instead, the letter writers collectively begin fawning over her, wondering what her real name is. And she eventually tells them, basking in their adoration while saying they created a mutual space of healing. Though she may have earned their admiration, her character doesn’t necessarily earn that same feeling from the play's audience — but not because of anything to do with the play’s staging.


In fact, Saverino inhabits her character flawlessly from beginning to end, delivering her many words with perfect nuance and infectious positivity. The other actors similarly excel, morphing into multiple characters through a minor change in costuming or accent. As they correspond through letters and answers, the characters interact with each other on stage as well — sitting closely together, holding hands or sharing a glass of wine.

The writing throughout is also beautifully literary, especially moving toward the end when a character (portrayed by an emotive Lamer) writes in list form about losing his son to a drunk driver. Sugar answers in an equally compelling way, addressing each item on the list with passionate sagacity.


From left: Jennifer Richardson, Jonathon Lamer, Aubrey Saverino and Sam Mistry in Chance Theater's "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Photo by Francis Gacad)

If we could only see Sugar experience conflict in the present, we might be even more moved by the experience. It might also have added interest if the problems and perspectives were more culturally diverse. None are specifically connected to the African American, Asian American, Latino, immigrant or other nonwhite experience, and the only letter writer with a foreign accent writes to tell her he loves her.


But the material is otherwise rich with human struggle, tenderly portrayed and excellently acted—allowing us, as Dramaturg Jocelyn L. Buckner notes, to “reflect upon our own lives, recognizing ourselves in all the tiny beautiful things that connect us.”



“Tiny Beautiful Things” continues at Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, with shows Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and information, call (888) 455-4212 or visit A discussion with the cast follows each performance. Run time is 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.





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