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Review: In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ in Pasadena, an advice columnist mines her own mistakes

Review: In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ in Pasadena, an advice columnist mines her own mistakes
Nia Vardalos as Sugar in "Tiny Beautiful Things" at Pasadena Playhouse. (Jenny Graham)

Character, the way we conduct ourselves in the world, is in decline in America.

Consider the evidence: A president who lies so prolifically that media outlets have assigned teams of reporters the Sisyphean task of fact-checking him. Business executives encouraged to put short-term profits (and their own bonuses) before all other considerations. Celebrities and the arrogant rich bribing and cheating to get their children into elite universities. Don’t get me started about Facebook.

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Pardon my soapbox, but something is wrong when the goal of life is to live in a five-star vacuum. “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a show of deep feeling and satisfying simplicity, reminds us of the way, like it or not, we are all connected.

The self-help journey has privileged the individual over the collective, but what’s refreshing about this play, which opened on Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse, is the understanding that our actions have ethical as well as emotional fallout. And that try as we may, these realms really can’t be separated.

Adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s collection of “Dear Sugar” columns by the production’s star, Nia Vardalos, “Tiny Beautiful Things” makes choral drama from the letters of advice-seekers clamoring for guidance and the searching replies of an advice-giver who’s the first to admit she doesn’t have all the answers.

The production, directed by Sherri Eden Barber (from the original direction by Thomas Kail, who co-conceived the play with Marshall Heyman and Vardalos), takes place in the comfortably lived-in home of the new Sugar (played by Vardalos), the anonymous agony aunt (as the British like to call their advice columnists) for the literary website the Rumpus. Strayed accepted the unpaid gig while waiting for the publication of “Wild,” the bestseller that would change her life, and though she felt insecure at first about dispensing moral guidance, she approached the task with her customary “radical sincerity.”

Natalie Woolams-Torres, left, Nia Vardalos and Giovanni Adams in "Tiny Beautiful Things" at Pasadena Playhouse.
Natalie Woolams-Torres, left, Nia Vardalos and Giovanni Adams in "Tiny Beautiful Things" at Pasadena Playhouse. (Jenny Graham)

Three actors (Teddy Cañez, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Giovanni Adams) voice the words of the various letter writers, whose identities remain abstract. (The performers are free to assume any age or gender.) But a human channel is provided.

Some write in on the brink of extramarital affairs. Others question the pattern of their relationship failures. Parents and children stare across an unbridgeable gulf. Sickness and death make routine cameos, and tragedies must somehow be endured.

How does the new Sugar handle the swarm of confusion, sorrow, guilt and fear buzzing louder and louder in her inbox? By mining her personal experiences as a daughter whose mother died way too young, as a former heroin-user who knows how easily years can be lost, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, as a woman who has disappointed and betrayed those who loved her, and as a fellow confounded traveler who every now and again is awakened to the tiny beautiful things that make life infinitely precious and heartbreaking.

James Vásquez’s production of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which I reviewed at San Diego’s Old Globe in February, had a stronger communal feeling, generated in part by the egalitarian company and in part by the way the play was staged in the round. The Pasadena Playhouse staging is more polished, though Barber sometimes overdoes the atmospheric lighting and the incidental business of the actors (pouring orange juice, shuffling papers) doesn’t always seem purposeful.

Also, the way certain lines are given emotional italics calls attention to some of the lyrical excesses in the writing. The more florid spiritual patches stood out less to me in San Diego, but the show moved me just as profoundly.

Vardalos, who wrote and starred in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” reprises her acclaimed performance from the original New York production at the Public Theater. Dressed in a CBGB T-shirt, she’s a blogger-rebel with a punk attitude and a humanist’s undogmatic heart. If Vardalos seems a tad self-conscious in the early going, she sinks deeper into the role as the gravity of the letters increases. By the end, her eyes are locked in communion with her fellow cast members.

The play’s emotional culmination comes in an exchange with Living Dead Dad, a man struggling to hold on after his son was killed by a drunk driver. What can mere words offer someone in the throes of such insupportable grief? Vardalos reaches into herself as an actor the way Strayed reaches into herself as writer to find the only possible answer: soulful solidarity.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” reveals the power of small epiphanies — the healing potential of forgiveness, the value of self-honesty, the necessity of sharing with others what seems our private burden. But the greatest epiphany — and the one that makes this show seem so vital right now — is that our characters are ours to shape. Life happens to us, but how we respond can spell the difference between corruption and salvation in our society as well as in our souls.

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‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive, Pasadena

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When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m Sundays; ends May 5

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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