Theater group makes its return with a new name and a fresh lineup of plays

(Screenshot of the “Tiny Beautiful Things” announcement on Facebook)

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor

Seven people sit in a room in the basement of Park View Mennonite Church on a recent evening. In the center of the room is a large, taped-off circle, encompassing a desk, a chair, and one actor. Outside the circle and scattered around the room, sit five other actors. Some use their scripts (or “on-book” in theater talk), and some are off-book. 

The actors are all rehearsing for Friendly City Players’ first production under their new name, after rebranding from Valley Playhouse. It’s a fresh start for the company. 

“Dear Sugar, why can’t we see that one thing, why can’t we see your face and know who you are,” asks the character Letter Writer #1, who sits outside the circle representing the main character’s office. 

“You know who I am, I reveal myself to you in every column,” responds the exasperated advice columnist. 

The show is “Tiny Beautiful Things,” written by Nia Vardalos, Thomas Kail, and Marshall Heyman and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of Sugar, an advice columnist who signs all of her writings under the pseudonym Sugar. The book has subsequently been adapted into a play and a TV series on Hulu. 

In the play, Letter Writers voice their questions to Sugar, and she answers them. All the letters were based on real ones that Strayed received as an advice columnist. 

“Tiny Beautiful Things” will be performed at Court Square Theater for two weekends, from Aug. 10-13 and 17-20 with times and tickets available through Friendly City Players’ website at

The play represents a resurgence of the theater company, which rebranded after the Covid-19 pandemic brought live performances to a screeching halt in 2020. 

“The company was really in a rough place post-Covid,” said Sarah McClelland, the director of “Tiny Beautiful Things” and a new board member for the company.

McClelland got involved in Friendly City Players in October 2022 and found that she had trouble getting people to audition for the play, let alone finding a crew to help the show run smoothly. These struggles followed the many issues that came with being a theater company during the pandemic.

After having to cancel shows in 2020 and switch to remote meetings and rehearsals, only a few actors remained with the company, and everyone was left wondering what the path forward would look like. Now, after changing its name and bringing on a new board for the company, Friendly City Players is trying to revive the routine that it had before the pandemic. 

“The name change and the rebrand is, in my view, kind of a last-ditch effort to get people interested,” McClelland said. She added that the changes are also internal, as the company tries to re-center its focus on its purpose and goals, as well as “change the tone” for how it operates. 

McClelland said she asked all the board members to consider what their “why” was – why they care about the company, why they want to give it another shot, why community theater is important – and what they were hoping the company to accomplish. She wanted the board members to be on the same page in terms of the company’s purpose, mission and vision for the future. 

This collaboration also extended the company’s selection of “hope” as the theme for the upcoming season. The three shows it will put on — “Tiny Beautiful Things,” “Urinetown” and “Peter the Star Catcher” touch on that theme. 

McClelland said the theme also represents what everyone involved in the company is feeling right now: hope that the revival will allow Friendly City Players to continue putting on shows for a long time. 

“Now we have this wonderful opportunity to create the theater that we want, we can be anything we want to be,” she said. 

The actors seem to share this hope as well, which is apparent in the rehearsal. Each is focused and committed to giving their best performance whether they’re running a scene for the first time or the fifth that evening. 

Daniel Stoltzfus, who plays a letter writer as well as Strayed’s father, has been doing theater since middle school but is participating in his first community theater production with Friendly City Players. 

Stoltzfus said his favorite thing about participating in the show is how collaborative the process is. 

“The director is very generous in giving feedback, but also takes our suggestions and ideas,” he said. 

Heidi Jablonski, who plays another letter writer, also participated with the company when it was Valley Playhouse and said she’s excited to see the energy in the rehearsal and the focus that everyone displays.

“I had positive experiences working with Valley Playhouse before, and I’m really excited to see where Friendly City Players goes,” Jablonski said. She added that she’s also happy with the focus that the board is showing, and is looking forward to a new season (literally and metaphorically) for the company.  

“I’m excited about the intentionality that the board is bringing to the new season and the works that are happening,” she said. 

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