Theater Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS (San Diego’s the Old Globe)

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by Milo Shapiro on February 17, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Dear Sugar,

I have a problem. My editor assigned me to review a play that does not follow conventional theater techniques, has only one known character, and doesn’t actually have a plot. What should I do?

Confused Critic in San Diego

Dear Confused Critic,

You don’t have a problem; you have an opportunity. Yes, Nia Vardalos’s stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s epistolary book is structurally unconventional. This only serves to show that there are many ways to tell a story in the theater; while most common, a linear plot is only one of them. Just let people know how much you liked it and why and everything will be fine. Be bold!

Yours, Sugar

So be it.

In 2010, the real-life Strayed (who is also the central character in the production) was approached by colleague Steve Almond with a non-paying writing opportunity. He asked her to take over the Dear Sugar advice column on the literary site The Rumpus. She initially thought to pass, but despite no experience that should lead her to this task, an inner voice told to her to do it.

Immediately, Rumpus readers noted the tone shift and figured out that there was a new Sugar in town. What separated her from the likes of most Dear Abby-style columnists or conventional advice therapists was her utter elimination of personal borders in answering their questions. Other than her identity, “Sugar” would reveal very intimate stories from her own life as she strove to connect with the letter writers and assist with their problems. The column developed a loyal following, leading two years later to a published book of the best letters.

Vardalos’s husband read the book and told her, “I think this is a play.” Vardalos, creator of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, fell in love with the book, and soon collaborated with Strayed to put together the stage version of Tiny Beautiful Things.

After the initial set of emails between Strayed (portrayed by Opal Alladin) and Steve Almond, the rest of the 80 minutes is entirely letters. Director James Vásquez designates the outer ring of Old Globe’s theater-in-the-round as the zone for the other three actors (Keith Powell, Avi Roque, and Dorcas Sowunmi) who portray the many letter writers. The three effortlessly cross gender and age to bring out the emotion in their letters.

Some are eloquently written, some are clearly not from the brightest bulb in the lot, and a few sufferers must have used every fiber of their being to find a way to articulate their torment. Through Strayed’s thoughtful and often very intensely written responses, delivered from the central area of the stage, Alladin’s Strayed tenderly but firmly replies to each one, knowing they are counting on her, whether or not she has earned that right.

Wilson Chin’s simple stage serves as Strayed’s home office as she digs deep to figure out which aspect of her own experiences — from her parents to past relationships to deep secrets — will best serve the person’s need; as a theater piece, the effect is moving and memorable. Overall, the production is gripping from onset to conclusion as we are reminded of just how universal is the struggle to hold it together — including a reviewer.

photos by Jim Cox

Tiny Beautiful Things
Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
Tues & Wed at 7; Thurs & Fri at 8;
Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on March 17, 2019
for tickets, call 619.234-5623
or visit The Old Globe

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