ROCKPORT — Theater is back at long last, and it has returned in mighty fine style with Gloucester Stage Company’s outstanding production of “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
The weather gods cooperated by delivering sunshine for Sunday’s matinee, along with a light breeze that soughed through the trees near an outdoor stage where spectators in masks (required) had gathered for the long-denied experience of live, in-person theater.
Given the circumstances of the past year-plus, it’s fitting that a central theme of “Tiny Beautiful Things” is the human need to communicate and connect, no matter the obstacles posed by physical separation. (Also fitting, if entirely coincidental, is the fact that the opening words of the play, which premiered in 2016, are: “Hi, it’s been a while since we met . . .”)
But it matters more that “Tiny Beautiful Things” is so solidly constructed, with a script by Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s book about her stint as an advice columnist; that Lyndsay Allyn Cox directs with such verve; and, above all, that it stars Celeste Oliva as the pseudonymous Sugar.
Oliva portrays the columnist with the precision and subtlety that are among this splendid actress’s trademarks, investing her with a combination of empathy, self-doubt, and just-say-it directness as Sugar goes to a few places, subject-matter-wise, that Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (”Dear Abby”) would never have dreamed of going.
Sugar dispenses advice not from the lofty heights of Mount Olympus but rather from ground level, where the complicated realities — very much including her own — lie. In one-to-one exchanges, she opens up to letter-writers — played by Kelly Chick, Adrian Peguero, and the indispensable Nael Nacer — whose issues range from relationship dilemmas to self-destructive habits to the loss of religious faith to the crushing experience of parental rejection to unappeasable grief, and more.
In Cox’s nimble staging, they rotate like a human carousel around Sugar as she pecks out answers on a laptop, with laundry on a clothesline behind her. As the play goes on, there are times when the columnist seems under siege; in one scene, the letter-writers literally chase Sugar around the stage at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, pelting her with questions.
Sugar’s counsel could easily come across as glib or platitudinous, and “Tiny Beautiful Things” does occasionally veer into that territory. In lesser hands than Oliva’s, Sugar might also come across as overly self-absorbed, determined to make everything about her (and indeed, one of her correspondents accuses her of just that).
But it’s clear that Sugar cares about her readers — it’s not just an ego trip — and what’s consistently moving about “Tiny Beautiful Things” is the sense that anonymity is equally freeing for the columnist and her correspondents. Both she and they seem to be speaking forthrightly about their traumas, fears, hopes, and insecurities for the first time.
As she discusses her continuing grief over her mother’s early death, her absentee father, her horrific abuse by a family member, and her tendency toward self-sabotage, Sugar makes no secret of the fact that she is struggling to make sense of her life, even as she tries to help her readers make sense of theirs.
In one mesmerizing scene, Oliva’s Sugar tries to comfort a man, portrayed by Nacer, who has been both shattered and numbed by the death of his son, killed by a drunk driver. Two of Boston’s best actors pack so much emotional force into those few minutes that by the time the scene is over, you feel as drained as if you’d sat through a full-length tragedy.
Nacer also plays another character who keeps asking “Dear Sugar, What the [expletive]? What the [expletive]? What the [expletive]? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.” It’s a refrain that starts out comic, then builds to cosmic, and by the end of “Tiny Beautiful Things” does indeed feel like the question that says it all.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
Play by Nia Vardalos. Adapted from the book by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Lyndsay Allyn Cox. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company. At Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, Rockport, through June 27. Tickets $15-$54, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com