Tears and laughter in “Tiny Beautiful Things”

Sherron Watson gives a heartfelt performance as Sugar, the lead role in New Arts Visions’ new production: “Tiny Beautiful Things.” (Courtesy photos)

New Visions Arts delivers an intimate mainstage production

For those seeking theater that entertains and examines life’s trials with an unflinching eye, New Visions Arts presents “Tiny Beautiful Things” — currently in its second weekend on the Alice Silverman stage of the Newport Performing Arts Center.

“Tiny Beautiful Things,” a play adapted from the Cheryl Strayed book of the same name, is a story framed through an advice column — Strayed’s previously anonymous advice column. On a day like any other, an author is unexpectedly offered the chance to take over an advice column: “Dear Sugar.” She does so and, over the course of 90 minutes, the audience learns more about her as she answers tough questions based on her life experiences as a mother, a lover, an addict in recovery and a child of divorce, among other things. Through these interactions between advice-seekers and the advice-giver, the audience is also given the chance to reflect on their own lives and similar situations — as well as potentially take away some advice, themselves.

It should be noted that this play, while not graphic, does include frequent use of profanity as well as discussions of sensitive material including child abuse, sexual assault and substance abuse. Anyone who is particularly sensitive to a topic may wish to research the content of the play before attending.

However, the actors who take on characters facing these issues do so with earnest and tender performances that honor victims, survivors and those in recovery. The letters included are pulled straight from Strayed’s book — and, thus, her column — meaning they were written by real people seeking real advice.

Sherron Watson portrays Sugar, fully-embodying the character in all of her unexpectedly harsh tough love and warm empathy. On a full-size stage, Watson forces an intimate performance through bold eye contact with the audience, unflinching in her monologues regardless of the content. She is aided in this endeavor by the set design, which included an extension of the stage. Regulars at the PAC will notice several rows of seats missing where the additional stage space now resides.

And, while there are three actors who rotate playing various letter-writers, Jeffery Wilson is a stand-out performer who brings incredible depth to each writer — regardless of age, gender or situation. Wilson and Watson share the most emotionally stirring moment in the show while reflecting on how a parent can continue on after losing a child, filling their silence with emotion even as the other delivers their lines.

Scarcity is a well-utilized tool by Director Marc Maislen — space and silence are as much set pieces as anything else on stage. This play could have been performed in the black box theater but the set, designed beautifully by Mary Eastman, would not have been as striking and the space would not have held the silence as impactfully. The cast could have been much larger, dispersing the letter-writer roles among a larger chorus, but that could have made for uneven performances detracting from the overall show.

Maislen has chosen his spare elements to create the most emotional and stunning production, without anything he thought optional or unnecessary. This decision does demand a bit more imagination and attention from the audience than other plays usually seen on the main stage, but not enough to detract from enjoyment of the performance. In all, New Visions Arts has brought a play to the stage which embraces both masks of theater — tears and laughter, which are sure to be found on the faces of audiences attending the Newport performances of “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a 90-minute show with no intermission. Performances will begin on Oct. 18-19 and Oct. 25-26 at 7 p.m. as well as on Oct. 20 and 27 at 2 p.m. Tickets to this production are $25 for adults and seniors and $15 for students. Purchases can be made at the box office, by phone at 541-265-2787 or online at coastarts.org.