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.
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.