Be honest. You read the advice columns. Even if it's just to be snarky about other people's problems. Or perhaps you're secretly hoping the solution to a problem you've been sitting on will magically appear under someone else's name? On that admittedly broad assumption, I'd be surprised if Tiny Beautiful Things, now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre, did not touch on a situation or experience that resonates with something in everyone's lives, past or present, admitted or secret. I know it did for me.
Here's the setup. Cheryl Strayed (yes, she of Wild book and movie fame) was asked in 2010 to take over the anonymous Dear Sugar advice column her friend Steve Almond wrote for online literary and culture magazine The Rumpus. She had no experience of professional advice-giving but she did have a whole load of life experiences stored away in her writer's brain. So, Strayed became Dear Sugar for little material reward but, as it turns out, a good deal of self-knowledge. When we look to heal others, we are also, whether we know it or not, looking to heal something in ourselves.
After her tenure ended in 2012, Strayed assembled a collection of those questions and answers that most resonated with her. That collection found its way into the hands of Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), who, along with collaborators Thomas Kail and Marshall Heyman, reinterpreted the book's contents for the stage. That production, starring Vardalos as Sugar, premiered at New York's Public Theater in 2016.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a strange beast. There is no storyline in the traditional sense. Instead, we are invited into Strayed's home office, where we share her experience of reading emails from advice seekers and her process for developing meaningful responses. Strayed, superbly played at NCRT by powerhouse actor Cynthia Martells, who also directs, is at the center of this small but complex universe. The roles of the many advice seekers are shared among the talented local trio of Alex Blouin, Jim Buschmann, and Keenan Hilton, who spend 90 minutes peppering Sugar with problems of unrequited love, sexual assault, temptation, infidelity, loss, etc. — or, in one character's frustrated outburst – "WTF, WTF, WT actual F?"
The closest the piece gets to a traditional narrative arc is one advice seeker (an engaging and hyperactive Hilton) wanting to know what love is, which starts an emotional roller coaster that another (Buschmann in a tour-de-force performance) brings full circle when he asks how he can go on after the death of his beloved son. Both questions touch Strayed deeply, leading her in turn to delve into her relationship with her mother, who died young, in a way that enables her to go beyond the typical pablum to deliver relatable personal counsel to her correspondents. Blouin, too, imbues her stories of lost pregnancy and "otherness" with a powerful sense of vulnerability and alienation. This theme of powering through fears and perceived weaknesses to achieve self-love and a sense of self-worth is a constant throughout — Strayed wants us to recognize that life's tiny, beautiful things can heal us.
The anonymity of her role as Dear Sugar was important to Strayed; the notion of shame and secrecy is an ongoing motif: "I can't tell other people these things but I can tell you because you're anonymous." Her concern was that if people knew anything about her, they would filter her advice through their own biases. In her own words, "I've always written the column as if I were a naked woman standing in a field showing you everything but her face."
Martells takes on a heavy load by both starring and directing, and she pulls it off triumphantly; a few minor verbal stumbles disappear into the emotional highs which she vests in the role of Sugar. Calder Johnson's scenic design nicely reflects the work-from-home ethos so many of us have been living with for the past two-plus years without the advice seekers' manifestations of voices in Strayed's head intruding too far into her physical world. Brian Butler's lighting and sound design complement the setting perfectly, and stage managers Kelly Hughes and Amelia Resendez keep everything moving along smoothly.
Tiny Beautiful Things is more theatrical exercise than traditional drama, but don't let that put you off. It's 90 minutes of powerhouse acting that will resonate and make you think about what truly matters in life.
As an aside for anyone interested in exploring Strayed's Dear Sugar world further, she revived her Sugar persona in a podcast called Dear Sugars, which she hosted alongside Dear Sugar creator Steve Almond from 2014-2018. When the pandemic arrived in 2020, she set aside advice-giving in favor of wisdom-seeking and revived the podcast as Sugar Callin, (available on Apple podcasts), in which she talked with authors over 60.
NCRT's production of Tiny Beautiful Things runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 2. Call (707) 442-6278 or visit ncrt.net.
Pat Bitton (she/her) is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes.
The opening of the one-woman drama Natural Shocks at Redwood Curtain Theatre has been pushed back to Sept. 29. Ticket holders for earlier shows can email email@example.com to reschedule. Call (707) 443-7688 or visit redwoodcurtain.com.