“Do you write the letters too?”
That is the universal, inevitable question eventually asked of all those who dispense advice to those who feel in need. The answer to the question is just as inevitable:
It’s not necessary, see? Never. Even the wisest and most experienced guru can’t match the wisdom of crowds in finding something complex and exotic to worry about. There always are more (and better) questions than can ever be answered.
The heroine of Nia Vardalos’ play Tiny, Beautiful Things, now at the Old Globe Theatre, dispenses wisdom on the Internet to a collection of followers who know her only as “Sugar.” Though one of her correspondents asks The Letter Question, most of them just present sad stories in need of solutions. (One guy, seemingly in the throes of frustration, just keeps asking “WTF? WTF?”) (See any slang site online for a definition of this or the many others bits of coarse usage in use here. Certain ordinary words and phrases could get sandiegostory.com dinged by the Content Cops.)
Obviously, her audience finds wisdom in Sugar’s responses since they keep coming back and their number increases. Her responses range from a simple “dump the guy” to long, pained narratives of Sugar’s personal crises, enriched by her skills at her day job, published novelist.
Personally, I find her answers of little relevance or, sadly, novelty. As eloquent as Sugar is, her sharing of personal stories only adds to the appalling realization not of how beastly and cruel people have become but instead how hard we’ve labored to obscure that reality in the past.
Are we better off when everybody reveals everything? Each of us must decide for ourselves.
And that’s true of everything in the answer biz. Oracles have been found in caves. Cathedrals, temples and mosques have been created. Plush suites with diploma-covered walls have been leased, gypsies have been equipped with balls of crystal; and publishing empires have flourished, all for answering questions that mostly distill down to “How can I stop hurting?”
And of course, there are no solid answers, except “Whatever works for you.”
“Every cripple,” as the Irish playwright Brendan Behan so memorably observed, “has his own way of walking.”
This play is an adaptation of a book by the same title by Cheryl Strayed, who insists that everything in it, including the bleak details of her own childhood, is totally truthful. If so, I salute her for her survival sagas but I find them of no use whatsoever in my own life.
Obviously, Nia Vardalos, Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and others did, however. Their stage adaptation of Strayed’s book has had some success since its debut at New York’s Public Theatre in 2017. Well, good for them all. But I have to ask, why has this material been fashioned into a play anyway.
The 21stCentury may be remembered as the Info Age. Knowledge is passed in great globs of compounded techniques which either succeed or disappear at a dizzy pace. Conversation, privacy and connection is one of the most potent mixtures found so far, the framework for Facebook, Twitter and such, but really just variations on anonymous chat.
The decision to lift some of this babble and make a book of it is mildly surprising. But making that book into a stage play really begins to wear one out. The next step probably is to film the play, thus burying something born of spontaneity into the permanence of a concrete slab.
Why not just call up Sugar’s web site when you need a fix?
So this play is by its very nature a static lump of verbiage just sitting there on the arena stage of the Globe’s White Theatre. Director James Vasquez has his four actors – Sugar and three interchangeable input voices – prowl the periphery of Wilson Chin’s set, a circle of off-handed domesticity, until – Big Moment! – somebody stepsintothe room. It’s a nice touch suggesting a growing intimacy in the conversations, goosed by a Melanie Chen Cole tinkle of sound, but it may have been inherited from the original director. Whatever. In this play, one takes with simple gratitude any morsel of theatricality.
Keith Powell, Avi Roque and Dorcas Sowunmi play correspondents of all sexes, ages, conditions and urgencies with energetic concentration while Opal Alladin, as Sugar, labors at sincerity and self-appreciation. Each would have been just as effective sitting at music stands holding scripts.
(Continues in the Old Globe White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 17, 2019.)