Review: In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things,’ Cheryl Strayed’s advice columns are reborn as very human theater
Advice columns and theaters have more in common than you might think. Forums of instruction and delight, they appeal to anyone who could use some help negotiating the often trivial, ultimately tragic affair that Balzac christened the human comedy.
This connection between the stage and the self-appointed journalistic sage only occurred to me during “Tiny Beautiful Things,” the lovely, heartfelt theatrical adaptation by Nia Vardalos of Cheryl Strayed’s collection of Dear Sugar columns. The production, which runs through March 17 at the Old Globe in San Diego, is guaranteed to provoke a cathartic release. You’ll not only weep but you’ll feel more emotionally intact for having done so.
Conceived by Marshall Heyman (“Dietland”), “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail and writer and actor Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), the project is borne aloft by an appealing theatrical simplicity. The stirring material, deriving from the compassionate counsel Strayed offered readers of the online literary magazine the Rumpus (collected in “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar”), needs only a structure that will allow the anguished letter-writing voices and the deeply searching replies to sing.
Mission accomplished. Three actors (Keith Powell, Avi Roque and Dorcas Sowunmi) become the various seekers of wisdom, their frantic questions waiting for Sugar’s sagacious replies in a drama that is composed as a conversational call and response among anonymous strangers who share the dilemma of being human.
“Tiny Beautiful Things,” which had its New York premiere at the Public Theater in 2016, begins with a writer (Opal Alladin), a mother of two working at home in her usual domestic tumult, being invited to take over the Dear Sugar column. Although she and her husband are struggling to make ends meet, something urges her to say yes to the unpaid gig.
Strayed, who at the time was waiting for the release of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” the book that would change her life, writes under the column’s pseudonym, but readers immediately notice that a new Sugar has taken over. What’s different? This new author, committed to “radical sincerity,” is comfortable with not having solutions to the harrowing problems that start landing in her inbox as soon as she accepts the job.
Some of the letters are wacky, a good many are ribald, a few are profoundly sad.
Instead of answers, she provides illumination. Her approach is often indirect. In sifting through the desperate pleas for guidance, she meditates on her own life, sharing the most intimate details of her experience of addiction, sexual abuse, self-sabotaging chaos and unrecoverable loss.
Wearing her “brokenness” as proudly as her resilience, this new Sugar transforms the idea of an advice columnist from the Ones Who Know to the One Who Doesn’t Know But Who Will Work Really Really Hard to See What I Can Find. But the success of this unorthodox approach depends a good deal on her ability to find the right words to solace those who need truthful acknowledgement and realistic hope a good deal more than comforting platitudes and stiff-backed moralizing.
The production, directed by James Vásquez, trusts in the drama of ordinary human struggle. Some of the letters are wacky, a good many are ribald, a few are profoundly sad. Midway through the 85-minute production, it wasn’t clear whether the letters would simply accumulate or dramatically build. But the gravity is ratcheted up, and the intensity with which Alladin’s Sugar both listens and responds is deeply affecting.
A man whose only son was killed by a drunk driver elicits the longest response. The letter from Living Dead Dad is a list of heartbreaking observations and confessions that Sugar replies to in kind. From “the obliterated place” inside herself, she speaks directly to the obliterated place within him, the hole that one day will be filled with more than just insupportable grief.
While sprinkled with lighthearted moments, “Tiny Beautiful Things” modestly teaches how to pick ourselves up in the days, weeks, months and years after tragedy. Strayed’s secret as an advice columnist was listening to what her own pain revealed about another’s plight and then finding the language to communicate this bond. Onstage, this generous act flourishes in the communal spotlight.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Tiny Beautiful Things’
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends March 17
Tickets: Start at $30
Info: (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
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