I suspect I’m not the only one who walked away from this production a changed person.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS is not light summer entertainment. It is thoughtful, inspiring, and ultimately heartwarming. But be forewarned, this is a multi-tissue kind of show.
Kelly Mengelkoch plays “Sugar,” an advice columnist who answers many questions anonymously in a newspaper column called “Dear Sugar.” (In real life, Sugar was the pseudonym of writer Cheryl Strayed.) Michael Bath, Taha Mandviwala, and Kearston Hawkins-Johnson play various letter writers throughout the 80-minute play, adapted for the stage by playwright Nia Vardalos.
Director D. Lynn Meyers has assembled a diverse yet fantastic group of actors for this ensemble. (She’s a great director, of course; a big part is casting the right people!).
Mengelkoch is the perfect casting choice for the advice-giver. She is arguably the best actress in Cincinnati and has a way of emotionally connecting with whatever material she’s given. “Sugar” is exceptionally vulnerable; she shares stories and wisdom she gleaned through her life experiences. This is a perfect role for Kelly; no one makes me cry harder.
I’ve missed seeing Michael G. Bath. While I think people naturally think of him as a comedic talent, the same thing that makes him hilarious is also what makes him outstanding in more serious roles like this. It’s sincerity. Genuineness. It’s humanity. It’s also what makes this show work so well – we can all relate to the various letters that come to Sugar.
Taha Mandviwala has the most fun on stage, jumping head-on into actual characters in the letters and responses. I believed him as a dumb boyfriend and as an eleven-year-old boy. He’s captivating, and I hope we will see more of him soon. Kearston Hawkins-Johnson makes her ETC debut, and she fits right in with these talented actors. She feels grounded and present in each moment.
Based on the play’s conceit, I was concerned I might get bored. But Meyers and her technical team (Brian c. Mehring, who designed the set and the lights, Matt Callahan, sound design, Dana Rebecca Woods, costumes, Kelly Yurko, wig design, and Shannon Rae Lutz, who dressed the elaborate set) kept my rapt attention with clever blocking, subtle and not-so-subtle light, and sound cues, and a set so full of warmth and lived-in-ness that I think ETC could sell tickets just to people who want a few moments to explore the props on stage.
There is some heavy stuff in this script; explicit descriptions of sexual abuse, intense adult language, other mature themes, and heartwrenching drama – so be forewarned, it’s not appropriate for everyone. But for those of us lucky to see it . . . well, I suspect I’m not the only one who walked away a changed person.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs through June 25th at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tickets and more information can be found here.