Theatre Preview: Available Light Summons Unabashed Empathy in Columbus Premiere of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’
Cheryl Strayed cuts a deep and personal swath through the American moment in her novels and memoirs. Her time as an advice columnist for The Rumpus stood as both an outlier and an apotheosis, turning her hard-won life lessons into the sharp caring her readers needed. Playwright Nia Vardalos – best known for My Big Fat Greek Wedding – works similar veins of idiosyncratic warmth and her 2016 stage adaptation of Strayed’s compiled columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, was a massive hit at NYC’s Public Theatre.
Available Light brings that Off-Broadway smash to Columbus, directed by David Glover. I spoke by phone with Glover and Michelle Schroeder Lowrey who plays the columnist, Sugar, in separate phone conversations.
We talked about the original impetus for AVLT to tackle this work in this season.
“[Tiny Beautiful Things] was brought to us and championed by Michelle Schroeder Lowery – like, ‘Guys, put this on the reading list. Put this on the reading list,'” Glover says. “I was on a break and reading through the first 20 pages, ‘Holy crap. This is good.’ I finished the play, ordered and finished the book that weekend, and I was hooked.”
Lowery adjusted and amplified this.
“Eleni [Papaleonardos, artistic director] brought it to me but I advocated for it,” she says. “I was already a fan of Nia Vardalos and her adaptation of Strayed’s writing reminded me of our common humanity.”
That sense of common humanity ties together all of AVLT’s best work. I asked Glover and Lowery how they saw that through-line and Tiny Beautiful Things’ place in the company’s conversation.
For Lowery, “She practices [throughout the book and play] unabashed empathy. People start out writing one kind of letter and when they see how willing she is to see them, it opens up.”
“What struck me was Cheryl/Sugar’s willingness to throw all of themselves at each letter,” he says. “That overpowering willingness to be so empathetic and share so much of herself with these people she didn’t know [solidified], ‘Yeah, we need to do this play.‘ Coupled with the fact that everyone who had read it felt immediately like it was a warm hug and Michelle’s enthusiasm? I was glad to sign on as director.”
Glover dug deeper into that humanity as a sense of responsibility.
“I think [empathy] is a cornerstone of our work,” he says. “We’re artists who are very reactionary to the times and places we live in. Many of us have felt in the last few years the world has been lacking in this seeing the same world from a different point of view for others – i.e. social media, the news. We’re finding pieces where, hopefully, when our audience leaves, one of the things they are thinking of is carrying on that conversation. Cheryl [and Vardalos] does that really, really wonderfully.”
Lowery highlighted that synchronicity with the work she’s done in her personal life and talked about playing a character who is both a public figure fans identify with and – by nature of the column – an omniscient cipher.
“Over the last two years, I’ve been studying positive psychology, getting two certifications, including as a resiliency trainer. But obviously, I’m not playing me,” she says. “There are people who’ve been close to events in my life who will see definite similarities and I think, as a young actor, we tend to take every character close to us. Trying to play [Sugar] as a young woman would have been a much different experience. Now, I’m able to leave it at the stage; and it’s nice to play a character who’s worked through her own stuff, she’s dealt with it. And she’s appealing because she doesn’t position herself as an expert.”
I asked Glover about directing that kind of character and the challenges inherent in bringing an advice column to life.
“These letters start off as kind of anonymous and one-sided; our goal is to make them conversations,” he says. “There’s a stepping stone [for the audience]: the entire play takes place over one night inside Sugar’s house. We’re immersed in Sugar’s world and the audience sees her as a person before [the character] starts writing. The letter writers inhabit Sugar’s space but acting as if they’re in their own space.”
An all-star assortment of AVLT regulars and new faces represent those correspondents – Jordan Fehr, Tamarah Davis, Samuel Partridge, and Diego Rubey.
“My job is to find ways for the characters to inhabit that space that are kind of universal,” he says. “There are a couple instances where someone comes back to a character but all of them portray at least three to five letters within the play.”
Within those characters, Glover needed steady hands with rapidly cycling emotions.
“Topics range from light and airy to things that get heavy, like grief,” he says. “In callbacks, my focus was really to get the actors to find the levity in some of what we’re doing. We hired out the Wellington School’s music library for Grades 1-5 and they played ‘I Spy’ in this room to bring out some of that childlike playfulness; then having them read a monologue that was the exact opposite. [Working with] the levels they could go, how they could bring that playful energy. They don’t have to put on a different costume. They don’t have to shift their gait. But it’s all going to come out through the text and the inflection. So I had them do it sitting, lying down, seeing how flexible they were and how much they enjoyed that process.”
Glover has one hope for the audience when they walk out the door after Tiny Beautiful things.
“Our motto in rehearsal is this is a long-form exercise in empathy,” he says. “My hope is the audience leaves this show – leaves many of our shows this season – really looking at those points of view that might be different from their own and seeing the humanity within them.”
Lowery echoed this with a comment about acting these roles that also seemed to resonate for the audience.
“It’s about giving permission to yourself to make choices, to feel a full range of emotions, and allowing other people to live fully, to feel their full range of emotions,” she says.
There’s no higher calling for live performance than bringing us in touch with our common humanity. AVLT is lined up to tackle that challenge again with Tiny Beautiful Things.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs October 24 through November 9 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Thursday, October 24, and Thursday, November 7, and 2 p.m. Sunday, November 3. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.