Why Does a Play About the Internet Have a Realistic Set?

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[article as originally published at TDF Stages, December 13, 2016.]

The meaningful space of Tiny Beautiful Things.

It might be about strangers communicating on the vast and anonymous internet, but Tiny Beautiful Things is a play of personal moments and intimate environs.

Now playing at the Public in their Shiva Theater space, the show adapts the online advice columns that Cheryl Strayed wrote under the pseudonym “Sugar.” Three actors play scores of her readers, asking for insights on love, life, and relationships, and Nia Vardalos plays Sugar herself, responding with the insight that made the original columns a sensation. (Vardalos also wrote the script, and she conceived the project with Marshall Heyman and director Thomas Kail.)

However, even though it’s set in the digital world, this story is told without screens. Emails and website postings are portrayed not with scrolling text and clacking keys, but with actors speaking directly to each other. Sugar may not know her readers personally, but as we see them interact, we’re reminded how meaningful – how actual –their relationship can be.

“We connect directly with the spirit of those letters,” says set designer Rachel Hauck. She adds that Kail wanted the production to be grounded in realism, not the vagaries of cyberspace.

That approach impacts every element of the show. The set depicts a living room late at night, with a family’s detritus scattered about and evening shadows covering the corners.

Similarly, sound designer Jill BC du Boff whittled her work to what was absolutely necessary, making sure she captured the sound of Sugar’s house in the evening. “It was a process of meeting the play, and paring the extraneous [sounds] from its world,” she says. “Sometimes a play does need a lot of design and a lot of sound, and sometimes it’s just a really simple story.” To that end, early design ideas included a “tapestry” of sound that led to an experiment with overlapping voices, but they were ultimately deemed superfluous.

Hauck – who often creates spare, modernist sets – has here crafted a world of tangible stuff that roots us in a specific place. “The focus of the set is the stairs and the kitchen table in front of it, where everything precious is up those stairs,” she says.

World Premiere Play TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS Based on the Book by Cheryl Strayed Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos Directed by Thomas Kail Featuring Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, Mir

It’s not enough, however, to simply toss some objects on stage and call it “realistic.” Hauck had to find just the right items to tell Sugar’s story. A conversation with Strayed led to new books getting put on the shelves, and Vardalos had input on the notebooks Sugar would use.

The intimacy of the Shiva space demands this attention to detail. “Because the audience is close, it really matters, even if you can’t read all of the titles on the shelves, that you can tell they’re the right kind of books,” Hauck says. “You can tell how old those kids are from the toys that are in the room.” The kitchen cabinets are fully dressed, too, mostly for the actors who open them. “The quality of that stuff starts to infuse the room,” Hauck adds.

As the mother of an infant, du Boff says the set design speaks to her personally: “I’ve just had a child myself, and I looked around and thought, ‘This is what my apartment will look like in six or seven years, with children’s toys everywhere and games that they no longer use.'”

Making something homey is no small feat in the Shiva, an unusual room filled with columns that could overwhelm a design. Hauk, though, created such a welcoming space that the actors and staff even hang out there during their downtime. “I feel most proud of having been able to create that [warm atmosphere] in that big, tricky room with the columns running through the middle of it,” Hauck says, adding that she enjoys “finding a way to mix the world of [Sugar’s] house and the world of the theatre.”

Follow Martha Wade Steketee at @msteketee. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Nia Vardalos (center) with Natalie Woolams-Torres and Alfredo Narciso.

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