by Shirley Lorraine
October offers advice and thrills
Ojai Art Center Theatre has opened Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the book by American author Cheryl Strayed (perhaps best known for her memoir Wild) and adapted for stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The play chronicles a true and fascinating period in Strayed’s life – one in which she ventures into the unknown with no small amount of trepidation.
Strayed apparently was a fan of an online literary magazine called The Rumpus and followed the advice column called Dear Sugar. At some point Sugar decided to retire and offered the position to Strayed. Despite knowing nothing about writing an advice column, Strayed agreed and became the new Dear Sugar.
Instead of offering direct advice, Strayed related applicable experiences from her own life to show the letter writers how she had coped with or overcome a situation. A compilation of these actual letters and her responses are what make up the book and the play.
Lynn Van Emmerik carries the bulk of the piece, portraying Dear Sugar in all her circular glory, from confusion to confidence. She is aided by a Greek chorus of three women, all dressed in black, who become the embodiment of the various letter writers. Elektra Cohen, Ashley Osler, and Isobel Roth all take on myriad personas to challenge the columnist. The result is a panoply of introspections, revelations, and realizations all around.
The letters are real, as are the situations. Due to strong language and addressing sensitive subjects head-on such as sexual assault, child abuse, death/suicide and infidelity, discretion in attendance is highly advised. As Director Bob Blough states in the program, “It is not a play for the faint-hearted. Stay with it and it will lead you to wonder, forgiveness and joy. But first it deals with the awful realities of life.”
There is also a good measure of light-heartedness, even humor, in how every situation is addressed. Presented in one 90-minute act, the audience becomes drawn into the plights and challenges, rooting for both the letter writers and the columnist, who is graphically relaying her own struggles with life. The ensemble works cohesively, each bringing both serious and playful elements to their roles.
A two-story home interior setting provides a warm, familiar, settling background to the cacophony of issues that assault her. As she sits at her kitchen table with her laptop, the consistent ping of incoming mail alternately gives her focus and a feeling of overwhelming responsibility to the letter writers. Emmerik conveys that internal pressure to the audience unapologetically.
The Art Center Theatre is busy planning their next season. The multi-talented Tracey Williams Sutton has recently taken on the role of Artistic Director for the theater so stay tuned for what promises to be a season of renewal.
Tiny Beautiful Things is playing through October 24, 2021, on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (805)640-9897 or wwww.ojaiact.org for pricing and tickets.
Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Safety protocols are in place.