Not quite a play, Tiny Beautiful Things (at the Public Theater until December 10) could perhaps be best described as the staged version of an advice column. Based on the eponymous book by Cheryl Strayed, this production focuses on a sampling of the thousands of letters addressed to Sugar, the online alter ego Strayed conceived of in order to dispense free advice on life and love in a column titled, you guessed it, Dear Sugar.
In response to the long, ghostly stream of wounded souls that seek out her insights, Sugar’s heartfelt writing produces an epistolary catalog of emotions ranging from sad to funny to spirited to grave, all carried out on stage with great empathy by Nia Vardalos who, in addition to her starring role as Sugar, also adapted the book for the stage, in association with Marshall Heyman and, notably, Thomas Kail (Hamilton), who also directs.
While Vardalos recites all of Sugar’s letters (in a rather remarkable mnemonic feat), her numerous online interlocutors are played by only three, excellent actors (Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Natalie Woolams-Torres) who, although craving her soothing, comforting words, occasionally bite the hand that writes them. In one of the most interesting and funniest moments, Sugar’s readers gang up to berate her: “Dear Sugar, We still don’t know who the fuck you are and seriously, who the fuck do you think you are?”. “Dear Sugar, Are you even qualified for this gig?”. “Dear Sugar, Your advice is all over the place!”.
Which is all but an admission of the dubious value and suspect legitimacy of online (and print) advice. Strayed handles these conflicting impulses reasonably well, providing prose that is often luminous and touching, but that unfortunately cannot always escape the eye roll-inducing, mawkish bits one comes to expect from the Ann Landers of the world: “True healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place, a place of monstrous beauty and glimmering light, and you have to work really hard to get there.”
About half way through, however, both Strayed and Vardalos deliver a riveting piece of theater in the form of a letter/monologue about the author’s mother, the recollection of a little girl’s dress the woman bought for a granddaughter she won’t live long enough to meet. It is heart wrenching, splendidly written and acted, and somehow functions as the emotional climax of the story in this otherwise non-traditional narrative arc.
For Sugar writes as much to heal herself as to heal her readers. Through miscarriages, divorces, sickness and death, her own words unite her to her audience in a stirring mantra: “Be brave. Brave enough to break your own heart. Tackle the motherfucking shit out of love. Look, we’re all going to die. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.”
(Photo by Joan Marcus)