For two years without pay, already successful author/journalist Cheryl Strayed wrote “Dear Sugar,” advice for literary website, The Rumpus. Columns were collected for Strayed’s third book which debuted in the advice and self-help category of the New York Times Best Seller list at number five and has also been internationally published. The theatrical adaptation by Nia Vardalos, premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2016 .
The Play: Writer Cheryl Strayed is padding around home 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 – takes a beat -then agrees. Three actors portraying the people behind the letters appear in her kitchen playing multiple roles. We hear their issues, questions, pleas, confessions and Strayed’s response as she takes care of things at home. Interaction is immensely deft.
“Dear Sugar…” A man dating three women and liking one more than he wants to closes with, “When is it right to take the big step and say, I love you? And what is this love thing all about? Signed, Confused.” After several false starts, Strayed begins, “The last word my mother said to me was ‘love.’ She was 45 and so weak, she could barely muster the ‘I’ or the ‘you,’ but that puny word had the power to stand on its own…My mother’s last word clinks inside me like an iron bell someone beats at dinner time…The point is you get to define it. Be brave, Tackle the motherfuckin’ shit out of love…”
“Dear Sugar, the thought of staying in my marriage makes me panicky and claustrophobic. I’m afraid I’ll grow more bored as time goes on. I’m also afraid there’s no one better out there for me…” “Dear Sugar, I feel trapped and like I’m hiding the real me…” Lots of people want to get out. “Dear All of Us Who Want to Flee,” she writes going on to tell the story of her own youthful, impulsive marriage, considered divorce, and learning.
A young woman miscarries and finds herself stuck imagining the daughter that might’ve been. “I feel guilty about grieving for a child that never was. And there’s the reason I lost the baby- my weight…” (She binges-and-purges.) ”Dear Stuck, people who think they’re being honest with you live on planet Earth. You live on planet My Baby Died.” She recommends finding others with similar experience, then tells a story of being assigned “at risk” girls at a school. The students had terrible lives. Sugar learned the hard way help wasn’t coming. She figured out the girls had to do more than hold on, they had to reach for the desire to heal. 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.
It’s almost unheard of for an advice columnist to share personal stories. Anonymity is a given. 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 in Sugar’s advice, like 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.
Perhaps, and this might be wishful thinking, the Pandemic has taught us to listen better, to be more present during communication (often on camera) and to respond.
Director David Saint does a marvelous job of using space with motivation, Manifesting interaction intermittently and only just so far, bringing petitioners together and spotlighting them separately in response to content. He artfully conveys feeling in short segments as well as cumulatively.
Laiona Michelle’s “Sugar” is a wholly formed character. We see her think, consider, imagine, and replay her past. The actress exudes warmth.
The company, John Bolger, Kally Duling, and Ryan George, is without a weak link.
All photos courtesy of the production.
Opening Photo: Kally Duling, Laiona Michelle, John Bolger & Ryan George
George Street Playhouse presents
Tiny Beautiful Things based on the “Dear Sugar” columns of Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Directed by David Saint
Art Direction by Helen Tewskbury
Cinematography and Editing by Michael Boylan
Available to stream May 4 – 23 2021