In this age of social media when a person can be flooded with a million chattering voices, it seems that it is a rare commodity to feel truly heard. For someone to connect and listen is a potent thing. Which is what makes TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, now playing at The Old Globe through March 17th, so powerful; it is a play all about empathy, being heard, and feeling that connection.
Granted, that connection comes via the online advice column “Dear Sugar”, and the letter writers never actually meet Sugar (Opal Alladin). Nevertheless, she is able to connect and help just by being there for them and responding.
Sugar is a professional writer and mother of two who takes the job as an unpaid advice columnist in a snap decision. As she wanders her living room, cleaning up and packing lunches for her kids, she answers the letters that coming flooding into her inbox. From a guy who gets seasick that’s about to go sailing with his boss who hates him, to a kid who wants to make friends at a new school Sugar slowly works her way into her new gig.
It’s when a writer asking about love who signs off as “Confused” that Sugar is able to really settle into this role and help by listening and responding. She doesn’t necessarily answer with actionable steps to solve the problem, but by responding with a warm and personal connection.
The ensemble – Keith Powell, Avi Roque, and Dorcas Sowunmi – play all of the other characters in the show. They move fluidly from funny, to serious, baring their innermost emotions and issues to someone who will listen. The strength of this play comes from the open and genuine performances from everyone on stage. There is no sense of artifice or disbelief as they slide from one character to another.
Alladin as Sugar gives a rich and emotional performance as her advice ranges from fun and snappy quick responses to more emotionally tied personal stories. Instead of a cold, perfect person spouting advice, her Sugar is a warm and relatable person who the readers know everything about except for her name.
Standout moments include Roque talking about parental rejection of who they are and how to deal with their parents request to be welcomed back into their life and Sowunmi as a distraught mother trying to find a way to recover from a tragedy. Powell brought the audience to tears as grieving father with a powerfully moving letter asking how to keep going after the loss of a child.
Beautifully directed by James Vásquez, the cast wander through Sugar’s house and the theatre giving the sense that they not only inhabit the mind of Sugar, but that they could have come directly from the audience as well. They take up residence in her living room, eating her food and helping themselves to a drink and while they all get close they never physically interact until a moment of profound connection.
The living room set by Wilson Chin is a comfortable and lived in space that further emphasizes the everyday in the stories of these letters. Lighting by Amanda Zieve and costumes by Shirley Pierson compliment the set and the characters.
Based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed and adapted by Nia Vardalos, all of the letters in the book and the play are real. The warmth and the humor Vardalos brings to the piece helps keep the balance between humor and the heartbreak. With topics ranging from having a crush on someone, to being rejected by parents, miscarriages, and sexual assault; there is a gamut of emotions at play throughout the show and the lighters moments are needed to keep the momentum from getting too heavy.
Advice columns can be a risky proposition, and Sugar even acknowledges that there are columnists who approach giving advice as “The Ones Who Know” but then goes on to assure everyone that she’s not that kind of columnist at all. She’s “The One Who Doesn’t Know But Who Will Work Really Really Hard To See What I Can Find” and bases her advice on connecting through her personal experiences. While it gives a lot of backstory to the person that Sugar/Cheryl has become, it can also feel like the letters problems come second to the desire to be front and center of the issue before those looking for guidance. At times it left me wondering if the stories were a generous gift of vulnerability to share her deepest moments to give advice, or the complete inability to answer a question without inserting herself into the narrative.
The show is made up of personal stories and inquiries so there is no plot point that drives the action other than moving from one story to another. Yet it is the compelling emotional connectivity that provides the forward motion.
As a theatrical performance TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS emphasizes the best in what theatre can do; take a room full of strangers and help them connect to this personal and powerful show through love, listening, and empathizing with their story.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS is playing through March 17th at The Old Globe Theatre. For ticket and show time information go to www.theoldglobe.org