The house was packed at the Pasadena Playhouse for the opening night of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a 70-minute immersion into the online advice world of a woman called Sugar and her honest and revealing responses to life questions both humdrum and heartbreakingly poignant.
Nia Vardalos (of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame) stars as Sugar and brings an instantaneously likable vibe to the professional writer and mother of two who takes on the unpaid task of answering questions in an online advice column “Dear Sugar.”
Vardalos adapted the play from Cheryl Strayed’s book “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” a collection of her columns she wrote as an advice columnist for the online magazine The Rumpus from 2010-2012. Strayed also published her own experience hiking through grief in the 2012 “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” which eventually became a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
As Sugar reads and answers questions, the online voices personify into three actors (Teddy Canez, Natalie Woolams-Torres, Giovanni Adams) who move around and make themselves at home in Sugar’s familiarly cluttered but comfy home. In fact, Sugar herself wanders her house, packing her kid’s lunches, folding laundry and everyday chores as she listens to her readers share personal stories of pain and suffering. They write about miscarriages, being rejected by parents, feeling trapped in relationships, navigating sexual assault and more. (There is graphic dialogue.)
As Sugar responds, she relates her own story, struggles and mistakes, revealing herself to her readers who clamor to want to know her identity. Who is this storytelling psychologist who seems to connect the dots so effortlessly with meaning?
Indeed, the quick dialogue, the commanding actors and the strong pace that speeds up for humor but slows down for the more emotional moments reflects the core messages of the power of love, the work of grief and how individual experiences can transcend to all.
The dramatic technique of personifying online exchanges at times, however, feels at times one-sided with actors presenting long soliloquies with no direct back-and-forth exchanges. But like Sugar herself, the audience becomes an emphatic listener, allowing characters to honestly expose deep humanity that is touching and raw.
Overall, there are plenty of laughs in the well-tooled production, but more importantly, the moments of pain, loss, healing, hope and forgiveness feel real and authentic. Bring handkerchiefs and see it with a good friend.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through May 5.