Old Globe Theatre's 'Tiny Beautiful Things' brings the wisdom and heartache of 'Dear Sugar' to the stage

Advice columns. We all know how they go.

Someone writes in, agonizing over a problem. Someone else replies with tips and admonitions and maybe a little pat on the head. Then — on to the next sob story.

Only that’s not quite how it goes with “Dear Sugar.” Or at least not how it went when, in 2010, Cheryl Strayed began writing the advice column by that name — one that has now been adapted into a play, and is about to receive its area premiere at the Old Globe.

People wrote in to Sugar’s column (in the online magazine The Rumpus) agonizing over problems. And Sugar replied to them with … stories. Lyrical, deeply personal, sometimes heartbreaking stories that would wend their way through thickets of the bittersweet and beautiful, and eventually land on some hard-won truths that spoke to the struggles of the people seeking counsel.

When one advice-seeker, beset by family issues, concluded a plea with the questions, “Why do all the bad memories overwhelm the good ones? How can I let go?,” Sugar replied with a tale about visiting her own estranged dad as a kid.

She recalled how, in a rare act of generosity, he offered to let her have as much butter as she wanted on her popcorn — and she promptly insisted it be drenched to the point of being inedible.

“He was, for once, trying to give me everything I wanted and I was trying to get everything I needed and it was way too late for either one,” Sugar wrote. “There would never be enough butter for me in my father’s house.”

And her lesson to the advice-seeker: “If anyone deserves that liberation, it’s you, honey bun.”

In the two years that Strayed wrote “Dear Sugar,” the column gained a huge following, supplemented by fans of her best-selling book “Wild.” And in 2017, “Tiny Beautiful Things” — the theatrical adaptation of a 2012 compilation of columns — premiered at the Public Theater in New York.

The piece was written for the stage by Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, who also starred in the New York production; it was co-conceived by “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail and the TV writer Marshall Heyman.

Now, frequent Old Globe collaborator James Vásquez directs a production whose cast includes the Broadway-seasoned Opal Alladin (last seen at the Balboa Park theater two years ago in “Hamlet”) as Sugar; and screen star Keith Powell, best-known for playing Toofer on the hit TV show “30 Rock,” as Letter Writer #1.

They’re joined by Dorcas Sowunmi (of off-Broadway’s “Nollywood Dreams”) as Letter Writer #2; and Avi Roque (who appeared last year in Cygnet Theatre’s “Hir”) as Letter Writer #3.

Ask Powell and Alladin whether they might’ve thought, before learning of the play, that a series of letters between a columnist and her readers could be a viable prospect for a stage production, and both have the same answer: Not really.

“I didn't know anything about ‘Dear Sugar,’” Powell acknowledges. “My wife did, and apparently has been telling me about ‘Dear Sugar’ over the past couple of years.

“And I would go, ‘Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh,’” he adds with a laugh.

“When I got the offer for (the part), I was like, ‘What is this, questions and answers? I can’t imagine how that's going to be sustainable in the theater.’

“And then when I sat down to read it, I was just overwhelmed. I was crying in my first read. The play so connects you and hooks you and brings you along. And I think the reason is that the play builds itself from empathy.”

Alladin’s experience was strikingly similar.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me that it could be a play,” she says. “But when I got the script for the first time, like Keith, I think I was in tears from probably the first story. I thought, ‘There is no way I can’t do this.’”

For Vásquez, part of what makes “Tiny Beautiful Things” work onstage is the way it quickly transcends the conventions of letter-writing and “really allows these letters and responses to be played like a typical scene, where you are relating and reacting and interacting.

“And beyond that, the show is about community, and about building a village, and reaching outside, perhaps, our bubble, and seeing who else is out there. So at a certain point, they are in Sugar's house.

“It's theatrical, but the point being that Sugar has opened herself up so much, and these letter writers in return are opening themselves up. So they get to know each other although they’ve never even met.”

Laughter and tragedy

The stories that course through “Tiny Beautiful Things” are at times sad and troubling and even traumatic. But Powell says humor is a crucial part of the piece, too, and performance plays a big part in that.

“Working on ‘30 Rock,’ I learned that the difference between comedy and tragedy is timing,” Powell says. “I think the beautiful thing about this play is that you get to explore timing,” as the cast had been doing in rehearsal that very day.

“What I love about the play is you can weave between the really tragic things that happen to some of the people in the letters, and some of the bright and beautiful and happy things, all in one letter, all because of how we play with timing.”

To Alladin, the struggles of Sugar and those who correspond with her are likely to strike a chord even with those who haven’t been through what the characters are facing.

“You may not connect directly with a story, but it applies in so many different areas of life,” she says. “It's funny, it keeps unearthing things for me as well — little moments in life that I’d forgotten about.

“I don't know if it's healing — it might be healing. But it's just giving little jewels, and just connecting back to little moments that maybe weren't resolved, and that I hadn't thought about in years. Bringing them up for me and giving me new perspective.”

For Powell, the play, and one part of it in particular, connects with his life in a very specific and difficult way.

“My wife and I had a stillbirth about a year ago,” he says. “There is a speech in the play about a father losing his son. And I lost a son.” (His name was Greyson Knox Powell, and the anniversary of his passing will coincide with the run of the play at the Globe.)

Powell acknowledges that at first, the thought of performing in a piece that hits so close to home “frightened me, and I said I didn't want to do it. But it was actually my wife (Jill Knox) who convinced me to do it. She was so connected to Cheryl's words, and so loved the ‘Dear Sugar’ column, that she thought it would be helpful and cathartic for me.

“What I find so interesting about doing this play is, it's not so much that it's cathartic for me — though it is. But it's not about me. It's about the beautiful humans I've been able to do this with. And it's about getting the story out, of everything in this play.

“What has driven me to do it is that it's so open and big. That's what has appealed to me.”

To Vásquez, the sense of reaching out that Sugar embodies is something that feels sorely needed at this particular moment.

“With the state of our country, and the lack of empathy and compassion for our neighbor right now, I think this play is wildly important,” the director says.

“It's about us. It's important that we hear it, and hopefully walk away a little more empathetic.”

“Tiny Beautiful Things”

When: Previews begin Saturday. Opens Feb. 14. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Check with theater for exceptions.) Through March 17.

Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623

Online: theoldglobe.org

jim.hebert@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @jimhebert

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