TR Robertson — For 90 minutes, audience members are held spell bound by the four actors and actresses on stage, at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe, as three of the performers open their hearts and souls through their e mails, portraying a variety of people seeking help and assistance on a huge range of topics, from advice columnist Sugar. The play is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for stage by Nia Vardalos and co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos. Strayed is Sugar, taking over an advice column in 2010, that was in The Rumpas, as a literary site written by Steve Almond. She humanized the column by using personal details, situations and tribulations from her own life to help, advise and assist those who wrote to her. The site became extremely popular, followers referred to as “sweet peas”, leading to an out-pouring of followers wanting to know her real name. She would reveal her name to everyone in 2012. Strayed is the co-host of the “Dear Sugar Radio” podcast. Strayed also wrote the New York Times Best Seller, Wild, which became an Academy Award nominated film in 2014 starring Reese Weatherspoon.
Photos by Jim Cox
Nia Vardalos would help bring the book, Tiny Beautiful Things, to stage after reading the book during a plane flight and falling in love with the stories being shared. Vardalos wrote and acted in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and its sequel, garnering Academy Award, Golden Globe and People’s Choice nominations. Teaming with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail, the play, “Tiny Beautiful Thinngs” would be born.
The Sugar we see on stage appears as a somewhat stressed out author, with deadlines to meet, who, somewhat, willingly agrees to take on answering peoples online questions, not realizing what she is really getting herself into. She is at first a little overwhelmed by how she should answer the range of questions she is getting from “Stuck”, “Crushed”, “Afraid”, and many others. A light seems to go off and Sugar decides the best way to reach out to the people emailing her is to tell them true stories about her life, the people in her life, the good and hard times in her life and the decisions she wished she had made. Sugar then takes the stories and relates how her situation is a guide to what her “readers” should consider to handle their situation. Many of the concerns are serious issues, such as the loss of a child, the loss of feeling anything, searching for love, lost love, sexual identity, hurtful relationships with family members, feelings of ending it all and more. Some of the situations are funny, like the gentleman whose girlfriend liked it when he dresses like Santa.
The cast playing the Letter Writers showed an amazing range of emotions as they had to portray numerous individuals who wanted answers to their deepest issues. All three of the actors and actresses were making their Globe debuts. Keith Powell played Letter Writer #1. Powell has numerous theatrical and film/television credits and was the Producing Artistic Director of Contemporary Stage Company in Wilmington, Delaware. At times he had to portray the angriest of the “writers” and also had one issue that brought tears to many in the audience. Dorcas Sowunmi played Letter Writer #2. She too has a number of theatrical and television credits and received her M.F.A. in Acting from The University of Texas at Austin. Playing Letter Writer #3 is Avi Roque. Roque is a multidisciplinary artist and a Latinx Trans/Non-Binary individual receiving a B.A. in Theatre from California State University, Fullerton. Many of the letter writers Roque dealt with centered on a number of love issues, parental acceptance issues and sexual identity acceptance issues. Avi handled these with tenderness and great emotion.
Playing Sugar is Opal Alladin. Opal made her Globe debut in “Hamlet” in 2017. She received a Tony Award nomination in 2018 for her performance in “Travesties”. Along with a number of theatrical performances, she also has been in numerous film and television productions. As Sugar, Opal shows her range as a performer in presenting the emotionally straining and stressful life Sugar had growing up. She feels she has reached a point in her life where she can share what she has been through in a way to help others. As she says to her readers, “you don’t have to be broken for me”. She also reminds one letter writer, “your life is a great and continuous unfolding”, things will change, things can get better, and they can also become worse depending on how you handle each situation.
This is a gut wrenching play. I can only imagine a number of the people in the audiences that will see the play have either dealt with similar situations the letter writers are describing or know people who have been in similar situations. Over the years advice columnists have provided an outlet for some, a quick way to get out what is bothering you and to try and get some kind of help. It is certainly less expensive than therapy, but certainly not a fool proof way to solve problems.
In looking into the Advice Column business, the first recorded columns appeared in 1691 in the “Athenian Mercury” in England. John Danton, who published the paper, used his male friends to answer questions people had and even started the Athenian Society, postulating that the people responding were heirs to Socrates and Plato. Dorothy Dix, in the 1930’s and 40’s, became known as Americas “mother confessor”. Many Americans remember Esther Pauline & Pauline Esther Friedman, identical twins, known better as Ann Landers and Dear Abby, who, in the 1950’s and 60’s became the go to authorities for all kinds of personal issues. Interestingly, they did not heed their own writing as they became bitter rivals in the advice business. Another fascinating cathartic release some have used is the community mail art project started by Frank Warren in 2005 called “Post Secrets”, where people mailed in post card with a person’s inner most thoughts and secrets.
Returning director James Vasquez has taken this quality cast of actors and actresses, a very emotional subject and blended each together for an entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theatre. His Creative Team included Scenic Designer Wilson Chin, Costume Designer Shirley Pierson, Lighting Designer Amanda Zieve, Sound Designer Melanie Chen Cole, and Production Stage Manager Chandra R.M. Anthenill.
Everyone is searching for answers on all kinds of personal problems. Many of the problems are incredibly serious and life changing. “Tiny Beautiful Things” presents one of many ways some people try to deal with and solve some of these problems. The play will be at The Old Globe until March 17th, Tickets start at $30.00 and can be purchased at www.TheOldGlobe.org or call 619-234-5623.