You may have heard of stage actors holding for laughs — when they have to wait to continue their lines because an audience is laughing so loud. But holding for tears? It’s happened, and with some regularity, in the time Nia Vardalos has been performing “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
It’s not uncommon to hear sniffling or outright crying during a performance. “Every show is different. I didn’t know that I would feel so largely responsible for the emotions of the audience because I can hear them crying,” Vardalos admits. At one performance, she stopped for a moment when a woman in the audience cried out. “She was weeping so hard that people in the audience leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder and handed her tissues,” Vardalos recalls, tearing up at the memory. “I looked at her, locked eyes with her, and continued the piece to her, bringing her into the rhythm of the piece.”
Vardalos adapted and stars in the stage production from Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 book. The collection of essays were mostly written while Strayed, also the author of “Wild,” was writing the advice column “Dear Sugar” under the titular pseudonym. Vardalos originated the role of Sugar and played her in two acclaimed runs at the Public Theater in New York in 2016 and 2017. In the show, Vardalos as Sugar interacts with her readers (played by an ensemble cast) while incorporating her own life into her answers. The response was overwhelming, with the New York Times even dedicating an entire story to the emotional reactions from audiences. Now, she is bringing the tears and laughter to the Pasadena Playhouse with the same cast, running April 10 through May 5.
It’s not just audiences who are passionate about the show. “The material has been life changing for me,” Vardalos states, citing it as her best experience since “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the indie smash that launched her career and earned her an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. “I absolutely loved working on this play, the process of adapting the book, of workshopping it over three years. And yet I’ve never made less money!” She adds with a laugh, “So it truly made me feel like an actor again, for exactly that reason.”
The journey began when Thomas Kail (director of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton”) gave Vardalos the book. (The show is co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Kail, and Vardalos; the Pasadena production is staged by Sherri Eden Barber based on Kail’s original direction.) The two had been looking for something to do together; Vardalos had to turn down a role in “Magic/Bird” because her daughter was starting kindergarten. (“He said, ‘Who turns down a Broadway show?’ I said, ‘A mom!’” she recalls with a laugh.) Vardalos read it on a plane coming back from New York and, in her words, lost it. “What’s so surprising about the bottomless empathy in Cheryl’s responses is that whether you can relate to the subject matter or not, there is something to be learned from every single exchange,” she notes. “And that was surprising for me because I like to create material that’s for everyone.”
Vardalos has had five feature film scripts produced, but had never taken on an adaptation before. “We reached out to Cheryl through all the correct sources and didn’t get a response,” she notes. “We ultimately found her on Twitter. We exchanged messages on social media!” Strayed was actually coming to Los Angeles to see the first cut of “Wild,” the film adaptation of her book produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon. Vardalos credits Strayed’s positive experience on that movie with helping her case. “I told Reese, ‘Thank you so much for treating Cheryl so well.’ Because she might have given us all the finger and said, ‘No thank you, Hollywood a–holes!’”
Strayed ended up being a part of the process. “She was incredibly candid in saying, ‘That doesn’t work for me, that does,’” says Vardalos. “We could say to her, ‘Do you have a piece on the topic of buying gifts for someone?’ And she would go through her files and say, ‘What about this?’ It was such a cool process.” In addition to the book as a resource, Vardalos interviewed Strayed incessantly and read through her other works, including her online articles.
She admits it was intimidating to take on such a beloved book from such a popular figure (she calls Strayed “Blonde Oprah”), but has also learned to embrace the fear. “As always, with something that terrifies you, you should walk right into that fire,” she reveals. “The things that have yielded the most positive responses for me was when I’ve been a fearless idiot.” She cites two significant examples. “When I got the call from American foster care about my daughter: ‘There’s a two-and-a-half-[year old] little girl living in foster care –’ Yes! When I was working box office and an actress got sick at Second City, I went backstage and said, ‘I’m a member of Actors’ Equity. I think I know your show.’ And they said yes.”
When the show opened, Vardalos knew she was part of something special, but was still taken aback by the response. “The night that we got the New York Times review and were named Critics’ Pick, I woke up to so many texts and voicemails that I thought, ‘Who died?’” she admits.
It’s important to note the show isn’t just sad stories; there is a lot of laughter as well. “People laugh; I put humor into the play because I felt it had to be a full meal,” she notes. “What happens is the play unzips you in a way that is necessary right now. I think we’re all hurting a little bit.”
In addition to the Pasadena Playhouse production, there are productions happening all over the country that Vardalos and the team are trying to catch. “Tommy Kail and I linked arms and said, ‘Let us create a piece of theater that does not have boundaries of gender, age, ethnicity,” she says. “So it was thrilling for me to see Opal Alladin in San Diego, an African-American woman, playing the same role as me. That was our goal and to see it happen as quickly as it did was pretty thrilling.”
In terms of the future, Vardalos is always writing — she is hoping to announce some new projects soon — and when inevitably asked about a third “Big Fat Greek” movie, she admits, “I laid a few tiny breadcrumbs in number two.” As a woman who was at the forefront of creating her own work, she loves seeing peers like Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler doing so well. “All women in comedy are friends because there’s so, so many funny women that very few of us are getting paid for it. And we will continue to change that.”
But for now, she’s loving her time back on stage, even if it’s not as high-profile as some of her other work. “In Los Angeles if you go away to do a play, when you come back you have to reintroduce yourself to your agents,” she says with a laugh. “It would have been easier if I’d said I’d been in prison. People are like, ‘Where have you been?’ Will you please write that I said I had a face lift or I was in prison? That’s far more interesting.”
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs April 10 to May 5. Check http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org for tickets and a performance schedule — note that due to scheduling conflicts, Vardalos will not appear on the following dates: April 13, 2 p.m.; April 20, 2 p.m.; April 21, 2 p.m.; April 27, 2 p.m.; April 28, 2 p.m.; May 4, 2 p.m.; and May 5, 2 and 7 p.m.