Mini Play Review: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos

At my new position as production manager for the South Bend Civic Theatre, I am happy. My boss knew what would make me even happier, though: joining the play selection committee. We’re looking for plays to put on in 2020. 2019 is already chosen, and it’s a good mix of well- and lesser-known, but edgier plays. While I cannot tell you what shows we choose before it’s announced to the public, I can tell you about the plays I’ve read (we’ll read dozens that aren’t chosen). I’m starting a new type of post: mini play reviews.

Tiny beautiful things

The first play I read for the committee is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. The play premiered in 2017. It’s about an anonymous advice columnist on the website The Rumpus known only as “Dear Sugar” who doesn’t really answer people’s complicated letters with advice, but instead with stories of her own that the letter writer can interpret as advice. She contradicts herself, reveals personal secrets, and gets very real.

The show has a few positives: #1 is two powerhouse names. Strayed is famous for her memoir Wild. When the essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things was published, it was an instant bestseller. People know the “Dear Sugar” column. Nia Vardalos is also a powerhouse as the creator of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a wildly successful movie she wrote and starred in. Name appeal does sell seats in a theater.

#2 The script has excellent movement on the page, which I can visualize on a stage. There is one actor who plays “Sugar” and three actors who play letter writers 1, 2, and 3. Each writer plays several people, stepping forward or moving into the shadows to read their “letter.” Sugar begins by writing on her laptop, but then stands to address the letter writer to his/her face or the audience. There’s movement between email and real life, as if all these people seeking answers come out of her computer and into her kitchen. #3 Because there are only four parts, theaters can get really strong actors in each role.

However, one letter discusses sexual abuse, and Sugar’s response is to write about how her grandfather forced her to touch his penis when she was a little girl. Sugar uses the word “cock.” While I don’t believe in censorship, I do know that an excellent play can be ruined in the eyes of a paying audience if the word “cock” is used repeatedly. Personally, I find the word inappropriate for the context of abuse. Why not “genitals” or “privates,” especially since this is how a little girl would think of a grown man’s penis?

Overall, it’s an interesting play, short but heartfelt, and with an interesting epistolary angle that covers some of the most challenging topics a person could encounter.

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30 comments

  1. I see what you mean about the language. Still, it sounds like a strong story, and the sort of play that you could stage very effectively. And, as you say, ‘powerhouse’ names sell…

    • Yes, we add all kinds of disclaimers: fog, flashing lights, onstage violence, graphic language, suggestive sexual stuff, etc. A lot of our season ticket holders are elderly, so they can be fussy about stuff like this. To be fair, some of them aren’t phased at all. And I was thinking about how many of my blogger friends who are 35 or under who don’t want to read graphic language or situations. So I’m starting to think age has nothing to do with it.

  2. I’m not sure ‘cock’ would raise any eyebrows here in Oz. I’m not sure ‘stronger’ words would either. I was interested to see what size town in the US supported a (presumably) commercial theatre. Wikipedia says you have a catchment of about three quarters of a million people in the wider South Bend area. Is that enough? Does the state government support drama in provincial cities – I don’t think they do here.

    • I believe the theater itself–the building–and the employees (most part-time) are all supported by donors and sponsors. The tickets, I think, cover the cost of productions. Almost everything is volunteer work (acting, directing, designing, etc.). There is one large theater nearby, but tickets are expensive because they part everyone. There are also small “roguish” theaters in the area that feel very do-it-yourself that certain groups enjoy.

  3. I’m like you Melanie, I hate crude language used unnecessarily, or repeatedly, and I’m only 33! This does sound like a really good play though, and i love that you have a new kind of review coming up on your blog-something else for me to look forward to 🙂

    • I wonder if the director of our theater feels like this kind of language would only be offensive to elderly people, and I can see why he would, but I’m thinking about folks like you when I read these plays.

  4. I’ve always found reading plays difficult – my imagination doesn’t bring them to life. But I love seeing how different directors and actors interpret them. Sometimes it can almost seem like a whole new play. It’s a much more collaborative thing than novels – even the audience plays a part, I think, in making a performance work…

    • Oooh, I really like that: the audience plays a part. I agree. I especially like the way our directors play with how close the audience is when there’s a show in the black box theater. The play for which I was the stage manager, Topdog/Underdog, had the audience about 2 feet away from the actors, and it was in the round.

      I’m learning that if I have a hard time picturing the play, it may very well not be good writing. Kind of like when I read a novel and decide it’s too “smart” for me. Chances are, it is obtuse or poorly written.

  5. I listened to the audiobook for Tiny Beautiful Things a few months ago and enjoyed it. I can easily see how this might transfer into a meaningful play! I wouldn’t worry too much about use of the word cock. Listening to the audiobook, I think it’s important in the context of Strayed’s story/response. It would be as jarring, aggressive, or frightening without this word. Strayed obviously didn’t want to protect her readers from this experience, she wanted to share it. By using the word “cock” instead of “penis”, Strayed makes this letter overtly about the sexual aspects. Readers/listeners/observers cannot choose to be willfully ignorant of her situation by making this about anatomy. The word cock reminds us that this is a sexual act and an inappropriate one.

    I love the idea of these play mini-reviews!!! How exciting. This will not only educate me, but perhaps also convince me to reach outside the known plays I tend to gravitate towards. I love the theatre. Perhaps when I come to visit, it can be a show weekend!?

    • That would be so awesome if you came on a show weekend. We have musicals and big plays upstairs and edgier shows downstairs (it’s smaller and doesn’t make as much money, so the theater can take a risk on lesser-known or “offensive” plays). I think you’re right about the word choice in Tiny Beautiful Things. Another person on the play selection committee also mentioned that reviewers who saw big theaters do a production of this show admired the raw honesty of the scene.

  6. I agree with your assessment of the sexual assault story. It would make me really uncomfortable to think of a child using such a word to describe a grown man’s penis and especially one who is abusive. Makes it sound almost like the writer is being too casual about it, but then again, maybe this is how she distances herself from what happened.

    • I think that when I hear the word “cock,” those people are making a show of it, like the word is so bad, but the result is it sounds almost….silly to me. So, I get that it’s offensive, but it’s also ridiculous, and the result isn’t the intended effect.

  7. I’m so glad you’re enjoying your new job. And it’s awesome that you get to help choose the plays!
    It’s interesting to hear how this book might be adapted for a play. I wouldn’t have thought of it.

    • I haven’t read the book of essays, Tiny Beautiful Things, but I was aware of Dear Sugar back when it was on The Rumpus. It was a really popular blog column that people talked about all the time. It actually had a different author before Cheryl Strayed. It’s a column has been around for a while.

  8. I’m really excited for you! I’m glad your job is making you so happy! I went to a stage play of Sense & Sensibility last year with some friends and I really enjoyed it. But I am also curious about reading some of them. I have Fences on my shelf so maybe I can read it over the weekend.

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