Nia Vardalos Keeps Audience Engaged With ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Vardalos

A play like “Tiny Beautiful Things” is simple in concept but difficult to pull off. With little action, it’s success hinges on the craft and credibility of the actors and script. However, Nia Vardalos’ adaptation of author Cheryl Strayed’s work manages to effectively balance the material’s emotional punch with enough humor to keep the audience at the Pasadena Playhouse, where the Public Theater’s production just opened, engaged throughout.

The show was conceived by Vardalos (writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), Thomas Kail (who directed “Hamilton”), and journalist Marshall Heyman. It is based on Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote while working on “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Those advice letters eventually became a book, “Tiny Beautiful Things.” They then were adapted into this play, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2016 with Vardalos portraying Sugar/Strayed.

‘Listening’ to People

Strayed’s column helped her transcend the “brokenness” she felt over her mothers death and displayed in “Wild.” She engages with her readers/writers from the safe distance afforded by anonymity online. But, her sincerity and active listening to the problems and regrets affecting others she moves through her own. Some letters are wacky. Some are fairly routine love-life related. However, many are profoundly sad. Their messages include lines such as: “I want to know how to care again,” wanting to “transcend this shit,” and, from a grieving dad whose son died because of a drunk driver, “how do I become human again?”

Faced with such melodrama and sadness leads Strayed/Sugar to give uplifting advice on forgiveness, learning to love and accept loss, and moving on. Her heartfelt and compassionate counsel clearly hits home for her, too. She recognizes the value of reaching out when you are stuck. and taking on difficult questions which require equally difficult answers.

Letters Come to Life

The play and plot could seem tedious to some for lack of action. Set in Sugar’s home, the plot consists of her listening to the questions posed by readers, voiced aloud with great feeling by Teddy Cañez, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Giovanni Adams, and responding to them orally.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” would not be as effective in less capable hands, but the actors here are first rate. Vardalos is empathetic, vulnerable and determined. The cast is multi-racial. Additionally, the characters portrayed by each are diverse calling on them to adopt different personas and ethnicities throughout. Adams excels in the roles often calling for boyish or edgier interaction. Cañez is heartbreaking as the grieving father, and funny as the writer who keeps asking Sugar, “WTF?” Woolams-Torres adds balance and light moments as skeptical writer “Not Buyin’ It.”

Vardalos’ “Tiny Beautiful Things” is at the Pasadena Playhouse in the greater Los Angeles area through May 5, 2019. It is also scheduled to open in Chicago later this year. Because of scheduling issues. Nia Vardalos will not be appearing at any of the matinee performances or on the final night in the Pasadena run of “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Vardalos’ understudy, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, will perform in those shows.

Written by Dyanne Weiss

Sources:
Performance April 14
Pasadena Playhouse: Nia Vardalos reprises role in Tiny Beautiful Things
Los Angeles Times: Review: In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things,’ Cheryl Strayed’s advice columns are reborn as very human theater

Photo by Jenny Graham of Nia Vardalos as Sugar in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Pasadena Playhouse

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