She’s a published author, working on another novel. She writes at home, cleaning up crayons and de-capping a beer before confronting the computer screen. Phone rings. It’s Steve Almond, editor of The Rumpus. He's resigned as the online magazine’s advice columnist. He doesn’t say why, though possibilities abound: too many crank letters? Ran out of improvised answers? Inundated by anger and sorrow? In Nathanael West’s novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, an advice columnist for the “lovelorn and lonesome” becomes so depressed that his only way out is extinction.
The novelist in Nia Vardalos’ Tiny Beautiful Things, currently at the Old Globe, becomes intrigued by the prospect, even though she’ll have no credit and must write for free. Wait a sec. Free? Her living room and kitchen hardly bespeak wealth. Her husband’s an artist, and they have two children. Maybe she needs a break from the novel. Maybe it’s just a lark. She’s uncertain, at first. Then, in an early scene, instead of giving a stock answer, she decides to speak from experience. Something clicks in both her and her anonymous followers, more and more of whom pen their troubles to “Dear Sugar.”
Tiny Beautiful Things is based on a true story. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, began ghost writing an advice column in 2010 called “Dear Sugar.” It became so popular that she put many of the letters, and her replies, into a book: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life. Nia Vardalos, who wrote the screenplay for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, made it a plotless play.
Even with all their pages, novels still have limitations: scope, subject, themes, character development, details. Plays have even more. No one mentions it, but writing personal advice freed Strayed from having to construct chapters and scenes and describe everything along the way. She could cover many current topics in the time most plays need for Act One.
When she begins, she’s different: personal, even frankly confessional — and more and more transparent. Instead of Q&A, she shares similar experiences. People hear a new voice and wonder who she is. She does too. Advice columnists often assume an air of superiority: “I’m the one who knows.” Sugar defines herself as “The one who doesn’t know but who will work really hard to see what I can find.”
The rock band Procul Harem had a line: “the lesson lies in learning, and by teaching I’ll be taught.” Tiny Beautiful Things suggests throughout that the “Dear Sugar” column was as therapeutic for Sugar as it was for her followers.
The problems vary. One’s in love with a woman who has a real thing for Santa Claus. Would it be fair, he asks with an “I’m not kidding” expression, if he donned a Santa suit? Another’s such a psychological mangle, all he can say is “WTF? WTF?” Sugar’s answer to the former is one of the play’s many comic responses; her answer to the latter is a well-deserved salvo at self-consuming pity.
Tiny Beautiful Things has no plot, and unfolds in a series of letters and replies. Both could be potentially static. But the 110-minute, no intermission piece does move forward. The emails raise increasingly tougher questions (heroin and meth addiction, sexual abuse). Amanda Zieve’s lights flash the equivalent of Law & Order’s “cha-gung-gunk” to suggest a deeper level.
Wilson Chin’s set is a circle — or concentric circles if you include the White Theatre’s audience-on-all-sides configuration. James Vasquez’s deft direction has voices coming at Sugar from all over the theater. And he adds subtle, choreographed movements to the potentially static piece. As Sugar becomes more known and more personal, three actors (playing several roles) move from the circumference toward the center. One even touches her near the end. Vasquez serves the play at every turn, as does the intimate, in-the-round White Theatre. It’s hard to imagine Things on a proscenium stage, with them up there and us down here. At the White, we could be the next caller.
Keith Powell (Letter Writer #1), Avi Roque (#2), and Dorcas Sowunmi (#3) play all the anonymous roles, regardless of gender (and without an emotional head start; they must enter full bore). Sowunmi is particularly effective as a woman unable to recover from a miscarriage, and as someone who doubts Sugar’s responses. Roque stands out as a transgender “orphan” whose parents rejected him. Now they want to make amends. Should he? Can he? Along with the babbling WTF negator, Powell is superb as a father devastated by his 22-year-old son’s death-by-drunk-driver.
Opal Alladin’s Sugar raises a question: how many actors would allow themselves to be that emotionally naked on stage? Many would raise their hands; few would step into the lights. Excellent work.
Not all the segments click, and for those expecting a developing narrative, Things will be an acquired taste. Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The piece takes a different tack. It avoids step-by-step progress and cuts right to the pain.
- Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos Danai Guria.
- Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park.
- Directed by James Vasquez, cast: Dorcas Sowunmi, Avi Roque, Opal Alladin, Keith Powell; scenic design, Wilson Chin, costumes, Shirley Pierson, lighting, Amanda Zieve, sound, Melanie Chen Cole.
- Playing through March 17; Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 pm, Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm, www.theOldGlobe.org.