Regional Reviews: San Diego
Tiny Beautiful Things
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos and adapted for the stage by Vardalos, Tiny Beautiful Things is receiving its West Coast premiere at The Old Globe. The comedy-drama is written as a series of messages between Sugar and a number of letter writers (Keith Powell, Avi Roque and Dorcas Sowunmi), who interact with Sugar in a manner that gives the impression of small, intimate conversations. This keeps the play from feeling like a series of unconnected speeches. Vardalos' script smartly finds a satisfying balance between lighter and dramatic moments, where the jokes don't come at the expense of the more serious material. Director James Vasquéz paces the evening well and is able to make the different stories equally entertaining. Vasquéz directs the play with a great deal of emphasis on placement of the performers on the stage at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. As a result, none of the movement by the actors feels stiff or careless.
The play takes place in the bottom floor of Sugar's home, and set designer Wilson Chin uses plenty of visual details to convince theatregoers that they are seeing the house of a busy writer/mother. Amanda Zieve's lighting serves to highlight the expressive acting from the ensemble.
Alladin plays Sugar with a sense of empathy and is very believable in scenes that delve into the writer's past. On opening night, her repetition of certain words (either Alladin had a few misread line readings, or this was a creative choice by Vasquéz or Vardalos) could be occasionally distracting, but she still provided an emotional performance. Each of the ensemble letter-writers recites at least one column that leaves an impact on the audience. Sowunmi, for instance, is moving in a monologue about a dissatisfied wife, while Roque gets a standout monologue involving a transgender man debating making a reconnection with his parents. Powell is arguably featured in both the funniest and saddest of the columns. He acts out a confession about a man's girlfriend's fetish for Santa Claus with hilarious concern, and his portrayal of a heartbroken father adapted from "Dear Sugar, The Rumpus Advice Column #78: The Obliterated Place" results in a tearjerker of a scene about a heartbroken father. The acting by Powell and Alladin in this sequence is nothing short of powerful.
It's through tales such as "Advice Column #78" that we realize that Vardalos and Strayed want audiences to feel hope when leaving the theatre. They bring home the point that, even when suffering from addiction, traumatic experiences or loss, people are capable of finding ways to cope and move forward. The play reveals a great deal about the human condition and why it's worthwhile to talk to others about both the positive and negative aspects of life. By highlighting this aspect, Vasquéz and Vardalos have done a successful job of honoring Strayed. Even if you've never read Strayed's work, the interpretation is still a touching one.
Tiny Beautiful Things, through March 17, 2019, at The Old Globe, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego CA. Performances are Sunday-Saturday. Tickets start at $30.00 and can be purchased online at www.theoldglobe.org or by phone at 619-234-5623.