Anne Nemer and her best friend from college, Elizabeth Bates, had a pretty good idea of what they were walking into when they attended “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Pasadena Playhouse.
The play, adapted by actress Nia Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book of the same name, revolves around Strayed’s stint as the anonymous “Dear Sugar” online advice columnist and the words of wisdom she dispensed.
The letters dealt with the usual topics — strained relationships, overwhelming guilt, rejection by parents, questions of love, loss and forgiveness. But unlike the detached answers of traditional advice columnists, Strayed — best known for her memoir “Wild” — dug deep into her own colorful past to share from-the-heart meditations about her life, taking advice-seekers by the hand on their path to answers.
Nemer and Bates, both 35, were fans of Strayed and the “Dear Sugars” podcast, buying tickets after learning about the production from Strayed’s Instagram account. Still, it was a surprise for the two friends when they, as well as others in the audience, were swept away by emotions and unable to hold back tears.
“Everyone related to at least one of the letters — I don’t think you could escape that,” Nemer said after the show. “That’s the beautiful thing — the voice reaches out, but it’s not her voice, it’s everyone’s voice.”
Since its earliest incarnations, theater has demonstrated its power to delight, surprise and break hearts in a single performance. But what motivates people to go to a public place, surrounded by strangers, and pay money to cry? Why do they pay to feel uncomfortable? Or maybe scared out of their wits?
“We have the kind of brain that is wired to learn from other people’s experiences and to simulate or imagine experiences that we haven’t fully explored in our everyday lives,” said Lisa Barrett, university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of “How Emotions Are Made.” “We can imagine ourselves to be different people, to be in different situations, at different points in time, by merely watching or listening to someone else tell a story. This is part of the reason why narratives and stories are so powerful for humans.”
Vardalos, who originated the role of Sugar at the Public Theater in 2016 and returned to portray Strayed’s alter ego in Pasadena, recalls meeting a man after a performance who told her that he lost his brother when he was young but never felt he had permission to grieve his sibling’s death. “Now, there isn’t a piece in the play about losing a brother,” she noted, “but he found something that applied to him and made it personal.”
Strayed, who took on “Dear Sugar” while awaiting edits on “Wild,” thinks of the column as “literary essays about what it means to be human” and likens the exchanges to “therapy in the town square.”
“The letters people are writing to me is the story of them — it’s the story of their suffering, their sorrow, their conundrum, their secret,” Strayed said by phone from her home in Portland, Ore. “Then I give them a story back, to say, let me give you another story so yours can be, in some way, illuminated or altered. Once that story exchange is made public, whether it be in the form of the column online or in the book or the play, other stories pile on top of it, because all of the people who are witnessing those stories have their own stories.”
For Julie Fisher of Studio City, who attended the play with her husband, Mark, 63, and friends Linda and Dan Molino of Burbank, the letters hit close to home.
“There are certain emotions that everyone has experienced, like the loss of a parent, and it’s hard,” she said. “It brought back so many memories of that really long, difficult period, and then the tears just flowed.”
Her husband, on the other hand, said that while he enjoyed the play, he had a harder time relating to the deep emotions of the performance.
“I’m envious of the ability of people to give in to their emotions,” he said, though he admitted, “I can sit at home and every week as we watch ‘This Is Us,’ and I’m bawling on the couch. Now, would I get quite as emotional in a public place? Probably not. But on my couch, I’m bawling every week.”
That response would come as no surprise to Carl Wilson, the music critic for Slate, who has been writing about sentimentality in art for some time, and is working on a book about what makes people cry over art.
“It’s easy for us to talk about comedy and about laughing over comedy, and nobody questions our physical responses. But, for a long time, crying was something people felt guilty about and were a little less willing to discuss,” he said. “It’s a funny hierarchy we have. I think it goes back to the same things that made people tell men not to cry, this sort of shame around vulnerability.”
I had a responsibility to give the audience the right to know they had permission to feel anything they wanted to feel.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is far from a cry-fest. Though it contains intense, gut-wrenching moments, Vardalos sprinkles in lighter touches to allow the audience to take a breath.
The actress, best known for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” conceived the play with her longtime friend, director Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”), and writer Marshall Heyman. Vardalos, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, said she struggled to find the perfect tonal balance when selecting letters for the play. Holed up in her “tiny office in Los Angeles,” Vardalos and Kail went through the book and wrote the titles of the letters on Post-It notes, shifting them around on the wall as they stitched together the story they hoped to tell. Strayed, who didn’t know the pair prior to the project, was invited in later to offer notes on the work-in-progress.
“I had a responsibility to give the audience the right to know they had permission to feel anything they wanted to feel,” Vardalos said, “so I added some comedy in the beginning, to let them know that later, when some comedic pieces would occur, they could experience and let go of the tension they might be feeling from the more serious pieces.”
It’s a lesson she learned from seeing Julia Sweeney perform “God Said Ha!” “You can take people to the brink of tears and then let them know they can laugh — and it’s not cheap,” she said. “It’s just life.”
And in Strayed’s case, it’s her life, playing out on the stage. The author has seen various productions of “Tiny Beautiful Things” as they popped up around the country. And though she said watching someone on stage declare, “My name is Cheryl Strayed” may be “the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she is always moved by the experience.
“Nia is not me, but the life that’s she’s reenacting and embodying, those are my most intimate things. I’m talking about my deepest sorrows and my deepest losses and my deepest errors of growth or experiences of transformation,” she said.
“Sometimes I’m sitting in an audience, and I can almost observe it from a distance — I listen to people laugh; I listen to people cry. Other times, I immerse myself in the experience, and I’m right there with them, laughing and crying,” Strayed said. “There’s something about sitting in a room witnessing people sort of relentlessly talk about their inner lives and their deepest, secret sorrows and losses and their vulnerabilities that makes us eventually open up. That’s what I always hoped my work would do. I really wanted people to feel their lives, reckon with their lives, to think about what made them. I find it very beautiful.”
We look for things that move us and connect us in a deeper way than a movie or a book or anything else can.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is set in Sugar’s well-worn home, cluttered with indications of the busy family that lives within — stacked dishes in the sink, toys strewn about the floor, a basket with laundry waiting to be folded. Three other actors wander about as they give voice to the various letter writers and, at times, serve as a Greek chorus. While writing the play, Vardalos made a conscious effort to ensure future casts would be diverse and represent the community, another way of connecting with audiences.
“I wanted to create a piece that would go on and on, because there is a dearth of material for women in their 40s. Period. This role is not defined by ethnicity, by age, by past experiences. Each woman who plays Sugar will inform it with the sum total of her own life experience,” Vardalos said. “I write in the playwright’s notes, please cast the others as a reflection of the general population. We love white men. I work with them. They’re great people. But there are other people to cast. Let’s open our eyes.”
Pasadena Playhouse producing artistic director Danny Feldman had read Strayed’s book and knew before reading or seeing the play that he wanted to program it. After “Tiny Beautiful Things” bowed at the Public, he reached out to Vardalos, whom he had met years earlier, then continued to email her every few months until the rights were available. “I stalked her,” he said, laughing.
The power of this play, and theater in general, he said, is its ability to connect people and reinforce all the ways we are the same. “As we get less and less connected in our daily lives, that inherent need to be together is more relevant and important than ever,” he said. “We look for things that move us and connect us in a deeper way than a movie or a book or anything else can.”
Live performance, of course, heightens emotions in ways that can’t be felt in a movie theater or by watching television. It’s the difference between viewing a Metropolitan Opera performance at the cineplex or streaming a live concert on a television or computer. Hearing words spoken live, as opposed to reading them in a book — particularly when they involve personal thoughts or exchanges — provides an additional layer of intimacy.
“The reason people are crying when they watch the play isn’t because that character onstage had something sad happen to him; it’s because something is tapped in the audience member’s own heart. When somebody tells us about their suffering, we feel empathy for them,” Strayed said. “There’s something about hearing other people cry that makes us more likely to cry. That’s empathy in action.”
Bates and Nemer, who each attend theater regularly, say they’re always aware of their surroundings when they get emotional, but they don’t really think about neighboring audience members.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of going to the theater because you’re sitting there having a human experience among other humans,” Bates said. “There’s nothing more universal than that. You’re all together, and it brings us closer together as people.”
‘Tiny Beautiful Things’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive, Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m Sunday; ends Sunday.
Tickets: Start at $25
Info: (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Support our coverage of local theater by becoming a digital subscriber.
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.