For those who wish they had an agony aunt, this is the play for you. Imagine being in such need of catharsis that even being a devout person who confesses his or her sins daily is insufficient; even self-flagellation is unrewarding. What you really have to do is write down all your fears and questions about life (imagined or otherwise), keep the prose pithy (but purple if you must) and send it off to a woman who you really wish was your auntie.
Now this is not just any old auntie, but the quintessential agony aunt. I’ve been told the term is not well-known in America, so I will loosely translate this for those who are not British as Ann Landers. But that does not go nearly far enough, as Ann Landers was not one to reveal every horrific incident of her life for her newspaper readers. In this play, Tiny Beautiful Things by playwright Nia Vardalos, the writer is named Sugar. She does not pretend to hide behind even a grain of sugar for her faithful readers.
I say faithful, but besotted would be closer to the mark, despite one reader in the play questioning her veracity. The ‘readers’ in the play are portrayed by three very fine actors: Tim Tully, Emily Gates and Richard Thompson. Each takes on multiple roles as they pepper Sugar (pun intended) with no-holds-barred questions. Sugar specifically says nothing is out of bounds.
Tim Tully, in his role here, takes the bit between his teeth and decides to go all the way to test this boundary. “WTF? I ask this question and it applies to everything everyday. WTF? WTF? WTF?” He does this not once, not twice, but thrice during the play. Sugar’s ultimate response pretty well encapsulates the real thrust of the play: it is actually a vehicle for Sugar’s need to find an agony aunt, which she does by getting members of the public to think she is one! Her answer to the WTF I will leave somewhat a mystery, so as not to spoil it for those who intend to watch the play. Suffice to say it is a dirty family secret.
The question is, why should we care? I ask that quite honestly at several levels. For example, if you were to ask someone why they have a big heart, and she replies it had something to do with a blowjob by the lake (yes, Sugar said that!), would you really care about anything else she said? Perhaps this modern shock writing is in the book by Cheryl Strayed, which has been adapted to create this play. I will not be reading it to find out.
For those of us rational fellows who are guided by reason and have no use for 21st century psychobabble, this play was an agony without the benefit of an aunt. However, I can see that for those millions who are dependent on self-help manuals to get through life, this play might be a treasure to discover.
As for Sugar, she is played with utter professionalism by Susan Cookie Baker. One could hardly imagine any actress as a better fit for this quixotic role, and as the centre of attention throughout – with her three interlocutors arraigned like acolytes around a Delphic Oracle – Baker commands the stage from start to finish. A bravura performance.
If you want to be shocked, appalled, and maybe even helped, by all means don’t let this ripper of a play pass you by!
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. Directed by Samantha Cormier.
Performances of Tiny Beautiful Things run from June 9 – 27, 2021, as part of the 50th year of the Invisible Theatre, Tucson’s greatest artistic treasure under the direction of Susan Claassen.
Main image: (Pictured L to R)Tim Tully, Emily Gates, Susan Cookie Baker and Richard “Chomps” Thompson. Photo credit: Wirges Photography