Cheryl Strayed’s best selling book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a selection of columns authored without pay for the website The Rumpus over the course of two years. Reconceived as a play, it sold out its premiere 2016 run at The Public Theatre.
Writer Cheryl Strayed (Nia Vardalos) is padding around her home in sweats, avoiding work on her novel-in-process, when an email message suggests she take over the advice column “Dear Sugar.” She has work, a husband and two young children so reflexively refuses – beat -then agrees.
“Dear Sugar”, starts a 35 year-old woman ( Natalie Woofams-Torres), “ I’ve entered into an arrangement with a married man…” The writer wants to know whether expenses are tax deductable. “Dear Sugar,” writes a woman who’s miscarried, “I can’t get past being numb…and guilty…because of my being overweight…” “People won’t be helpful to you because they don’t live on planet-my-baby-died. Find your tribe…” Sugar responds in part.
Natalie Woolams-Torres and Nia Vardalos
A man born in the wrong – female – body (Hubert Point-Du Jour) left home because of parental disparagement, had a sex change, and created a good life for himself. Many years later, he receives an apologetic email from home. “…they want me back, he writes, helping himself to orange juice and vodka from the fridge. “I don’t think I love my parents anymore…” he continues adding a bit more liquor. “Forgive – not for them, but for you,” Sugar replies, then sharing a story of her needing to do just that.
Hubert Point-Du Jour and Nia Vardalos
“Dear Sugar,” bemoans a middle aged married man (Teddy Canez) “…I’m seriously crushing on a friend, what should I do? I know what I should do, but…” “She’s like a motorcycle,” quips Sugar, “Dazzling but going nowhere.” Living Dead Dad writes that his son was killed. “How do I go on? How do I become human again? I’ll understand if you don’t answer.” This is perhaps the most stirring exchange in the play. All audience coughing ceases. Stillness pervades. When the petitioner gets up, he holds Strayed’s shoulder in a rare moment of actual physical contact.
Teddy Canez and Nia Vardalos
It’s almost unheard of for an advice columnist to share personal stories. Anonymity is a given. Cheryl Strayed breaks this tradition with perception, compassion, raw honesty and dare I say it, self absorption. In doing so, she appears empathetic and fallible rather than sympathetic and distanced. (Because there’s more of Strayed’s history than that of letter writers, this skews unbalanced.) Readers notice a change in tone and ask who she is. When she retires (presumably then), Sugar tells her fans.
Subjects range from infidelity (she left her first admittedly lovely husband because the word “go” kept repeating in her head), rape (Strayed suffered abuse), heroin use (her own), estrangement (her father), loss (her mother), fear, insecurity, impotence in the face of wrongdoing…There’s also humor like Sugar’s advice to the man whose girlfriend is turned on by Santa Claus.
In the early 1990s, two motivational speakers published Chicken Soup for The Soul, a book of inspirational stories from “ordinary” people that became a phenomenon. By 2000, the success of relatable, everyman confessions ballooned into a company with 200 titles. We clearly find solace in each other’s trials.
Three excellent actors play all the roles disappearing into shadow between. Vardalos has every pause and nuance down, but speaks so fluently, it’s difficult to believe thoughts or feelings come from anyplace below the surface.
Director Thomas Kail utilizes the large stage with grace and variety. His characters seem quite real.
A well detailed Set by Rachel Hauk is precisely how we might imagine Strayed’s home, decoration, mess and all.
The show is intermittently moving, funny, and wise. A warm bath. Chicken soup.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Nia Vardalos
Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on a Book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, Nia Vardalos
Directed by Thomas Kail
Through December 10, 2017
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street