The last thing Cheryl Strayed needed was an unpaid gig writing an online advice column—what with her penurious spouse, their bills, their kids, and the book she was trying to finish. So when a friend who had been writing the column asked her to take it on, naturally she agreed.
That’s the premise of Tiny Beautiful Things, the next play in the George Street Playhouse season; it will be available to stream from Tuesday, May 4 to Sunday, May 23.
The play is based on the real-life Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 best-selling book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. The book consisted of a collection of essays drawn from the “Dear Sugar” advice column that Strayed actually did take over from a friend and wrote anonymously for the online literary magazine The Rumpus.
The book was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, who wrote and starred in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Vardalos played Sugar when the play was introduced and again when it was reprised at The Public Theater in New York. There are four actors—Laiona Michelle as Sugar and Kally Duling, John Bolger, and Ryan George as Natalie, Alfredo, and Phillip, respectively. All of these actors, besides the rest of their substantial careers, are veterans of George Street productions.
Duling, Bolger, and George—although they are assigned names—play a myriad of men and women who write to Sugar, to describe their personal challenges. Sugar draws deeply, often in raw detail, on her own experiences—perhaps more than she anticipated—to help these folks make sense of theirs.
Some of this is tragic, but the play is not a tragedy. The questions and the answers sometimes involve graphic sexual images, psychological and physical abuse, and explicit language. In other words, it’s not for the kids. But ultimately Tiny Beautiful Things is not about the awful things that happen to a person but rather about where that person can go from here.
Ryan George, who has appeared at George Street in two world premieres—The Trial of Donna Caine and Midwives—finds this aspect of the play, the implication that while there are troubles there are ways to deal with them—to be timely in view of what people everywhere have gone through for the past 14 months.
“We’ve all been down a very dark hole,” he said, “with loss of lives, loss of jobs, the isolation of being away from family and friends, not knowing what our lives will be like—and, at the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement and the uncertainty of the election
“Having this play in which people have the freedom and courage to come forward with trauma that has been affecting their lives, looking for guidance, is a great way to heal. People in the audience can understand a lot of these stories—not in the same details but in the essence of them.”
George said the play projects the value of finding someone who is willing to engage with you and sharing your story.
“If you’re able to communicate with others,” he said, “you can find people who will be there for you. Life has a way of turning darkness into light.”
For this reason, George said, he appreciates the variety of stories Sugar shares with those who turn to her in their anguish: “She is able to understand and relate to her own life what those people are going through and help them” which is what Strayed did when she was writing the column.
Another aspect of the play that appeals to Ryan George is the fact that the actors dubbed Natalie, Alfredo, and Phillip provide voices for multiple characters, each of whom has his or her own personality.
Each of the men and women heard from in this play has unique problems and crises, he said, so each one deserves to have his or her unique point of view and spirit.
“It’s a great challenge,” George said, “but having multiple characters in a single project is welcome. It allows you to develop each character in a way that doesn’t seem like hamming it up, trying too hard to make everyone different.
“It’s a wonderful challenge. I don’t know any actor who wouldn’t welcome it.”
As were the first two plays in the George Street season, this play was rehearsed and staged at the home of a member of the playhouse board of directors: a play written for the stage performed in a house and presented as if it were a movie or TV drama.
Ryan George, who works in film and television is also a director and likes to get behind the camera. He said it was exhilarating to work in this ad hoc format, which was born of necessity because of the pandemic.
His experience as a director, he said, helped him to understand the framing, what shot the director of this play, David Saint, had in mind.
“When you’re on camera,” George said, “only a certain space is being recorded; on stage, you have more space to move around in. Having that prior knowledge, you don’t have to worry about playing to the audience so that they can see you and hear you. You can let all that go. It was fun, a new challenge as an actor, figuring out how to maintain the scene within that box.”
With this project completed, George looks ahead:
“We’re hoping for a summer season and an indoor fall season,” he said. I’ll be patient as auditions come around, and when an opportunity comes, I’ll be excited to jump on board.
“Meanwhile, the weather’s great; I’ll be able to be outside and enjoy New York City as it’s coming back to life. It can be gone tomorrow, so enjoy it today as much as you can.”
Household tickets to the plays in the George Street Playhouse streaming season can be purchased for $33 at GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org. Each subscriber household will receive a unique link to view the performance.
Cinematography is by Michael Boylan