By Jean Lowerison
What do you do when you have a relationship problem you can’t solve? Back in the mid-1950s and ’60s, many people wrote to newspaper columnists like Dear Abby and Ann Landers for advice.
Some 50 years later, writer Cheryl Strayed took over the online “Dear Sugar” advice column after the man who was writing it — without much enthusiasm — offered it to her. Strayed eventually turned the results into another book, which Nia Vardalos adapted into the moving, funny and altogether engaging play “Tiny Beautiful Things,” playing through March 17 at The Old Globe’s White Theatre.
Opal Alladin plays Sugar, who fields questions about diverse topics from being “stuck” because of a tragedy like child abuse, to whether remuneration from an “arrangement” with a married man is taxable income.
The reason the play is so engaging is that it’s about listening, empathy and that seemingly rare commodity: human connection. Sugar doesn’t just tell the three advice seekers writing letters what to do — she goes for a bigger picture, occasionally offering her own harrowing experiences to make that connection.
We see Sugar, married with two children, puttering around in her kitchen and waiting for dings from her computer to bring her letters. Meanwhile, the ensemble of three writers (Keith Powell, Avi Roque and Dorcas Sowunmi) circle, appear and disappear, each playing several writers in this 80-minute play. Each thoroughly inhabits the writer of the moment.
Sugar talks of her work with at-risk young teens, many of whom share ghastly stories of abuse and betrayal. She promised them help and asked authorities, but they failed to show up. So she adjusted her advice, telling the girls to reach for a way to transcend the ugly facts of their lives and find healing within. “True healing,” she told them, “is a fierce place.”
Sugar responds to Sowunmi, a woman who is trying to recover from a miscarriage, with a similar story of her own.
The question that brings tears to many is from Living Dead Dad, whose 22-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver. “How do I go on?” he asks.
Kudos to director James Vásquez for the flow of the staging. The writers wander through the kitchen, occasionally eating or even having a drink — another Vásquez touch that adds immediacy and connection.
Wilson Chin’s set has a perfect lived-in look for a mother of two. Amanda Zieve and Melanie Cole Chen contribute fine lighting and sound, respectively.
This is not your usual play, and some will be put off by the lack of a typical dramatic structure. But anyone who has been in any of these difficult situations is likely to appreciate Vardalos’ attempt to create community with her writers — and her audience.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.