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Heartland Theatre’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ explores huge, tough themes

A middle-aged woman sits at her laptop, gazing at the camera with a distressed expression. She's surrounded by three actors hovering over her. All appear to be talking to her at the same time.
Jesse Folks
Heartland Theatre
The cast of "Tiny Beautiful Things," a new production running through April 15 at Heartland Theatre Company in Normal.

Heartland Theatre Company’s newest play opens Thursday with the troupe’s interpretation of Nia Vardalos' "Tiny Beautiful Things." This bite-sized, poignant play based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed tells the story of an advice columnist who helps others cope with trauma by reflecting on her own.

Twin City theater veteran Don LaCasse directs “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Now retired from leading the theater and dance department at Illinois State University, LaCasse has been anything but idol by taking on challenging material for Heartland Theatre.

LaCasse fell in love with the play, but it is not the one he thought he’d be directing. He was originally slated to lead “Water by the Spoonful,” which has specific racial and ethnic casting requirements the ensemble could not satisfy.

“When we realized that after the auditions, we had to quickly think about possible plays,” LaCasse said in an interview with WGLT.

LaCasse had heard about “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which “Variety” called “a theatrical hug in turbulent times,” but hadn’t managed to get his hands on a script.

“We quickly got some scripts, and I said, 'Well, this is different than anything I’ve ever done,'” he said. “So, why not?”

LaCasse said the structure is what’s different for him.

“There’s no narrative arc to it,” he said. “There isn’t a story that goes from beginning to end.”

The central figure in “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a woman who writes a “Dear Abby”-type advice column called “Dear Sugar.” As Sugar, she is anonymous, as are the writers seeking counsel in an online forum.

“The way to approach it for her,” LaCasse said, “would be to share her experiences that relate to the letter writers.”

Based on Strayed’s real life writing as Sugar, the play cycles through various traumatic events. LaCasse feels the anonymity of the platform allowed people to open up about the worst moments of their lives. Audiences should take care to prepare for vulgar language and stories of child abuse, grief and depression, sexual assault and substance abuse.

For example, one man tells Sugar about his son, who died in an automobile accident when he was struck by a drunk driver.

“He says, ‘I can’t write you a letter; I’m just going to write you a list.’ He writes a list of 21 responses. Then she (Sugar) writes back, also in a list. There’s a lot of stories like that in there that are very moving.”

Three of the play’s actors rotate as various letter writers, while a fourth plays Sugar. To manage the potential wounds “Tiny Beautiful Things” could open of their own, the cast had multiple conversations and dove into Strayed’s original memoir.

“We talked about the different things they were experiencing. We just tried to dig as deep as we could, and actors then do their magic,” said LaCasse.

"Tiny Beautiful Things" runs through April 15 at Heartland Theatre Company, 1110 Douglas St., Normal. The show is recommended for mature audiences only. Tickets are available at heartlandtheatre.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.