It seems insufficient to call “Dear Sugar,” a series of posts that Cheryl Strayed wrote for the website therumpus.net from 2010 to 2012, an advice column. Yes, Strayed dispensed advice to anonymous letter writers under the Sugar pseudonym. But she often went off on tangents with stories from her own life, and philosophical reflections, lacing both with wry humor. “Dear Sugar” was part advice column, part memoir.
Actress, director and screenwriter Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) adapted the book into a play, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” that debuted off-Broadway in 2017, with Vardalos starring. And the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick has now produced Vardolos’ play as a film, directed by GSP artistic director David Saint, that will be available online through May 23 as part of its current virtual season.
Laiona Michelle — who appeared at the George Street Playhouse in 2018 (“American Hero”) and 2019 (“Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical”) and recently joined the Playhouse staff as an artistic associate — stars as Strayed/Sugar, who I’ll just call Sugar, in this review, to keep things simple. Three other actors (Kally Duling, John Bolger, Ryan George) play the letter writers, brought to three-dimensional life in Sugar’s imagination.
The play takes place in Sugar’s kitchen and around her house. At first, the letter writers just ask their questions and Sugar gives her answers. But later, there is more interaction, with the letter writers noticing that she is different from the column’s previous writer, and asking about her credentials and her real name. They get on her nerves and push her buttons.
Still, by the end of the play, Sugar and the letter writers seem more like friends that strangers. They sit around her table, eating and chatting amiably.
In keeping with the spirit of the column, the play sometimes seems like a Sugar monologue, as she relates stories from her own life relevant to the questions the letter writers pose. But the conversations never seem like real dialogue.
In real life, of course, an advice columnist — or any kind of writer, really — mulls over what to say and then wrestles with the words, refining and re-writing until they’re smooth and useful. In this play, after the letter writers ask their questions — meaty questions, uttered in hope of receiving some relief from the most troublesome crises of their lives — Sugar always, immediately, comes up with the perfect thing to say. She is an endless fount of eloquent profundity.
“How you get unstuck is, you reach,” she says at one point. “Therapy, support groups, speaking to friends will help, but don’t hold it inside. Get it out. Talk about it. Cry out.
“But know this: No one can make this right for you. You have to reach for your desire to heal, and healing is a fierce place, it’s a giant place, and a place of monstrous beauty and glimmering light, and you have to work, work hard, to get there.”
So she ends up seeming like a supernatural being, not an actual person with a messy personal history of her own, which is what she professes to be. Despite its often painful content, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is ultimately a fantasy.
It doesn’t help that our first glimpse of Sugar comes when she is offered the opportunity to take over the column anonymously, and for no pay. She immediately says no, and gives convincing reasons why. Then, an instant later, she changes her mind, saying “Yeah, I’m in” with no explanation.
This hardly rings true, and is dramatically frustrating. It’s such an extreme about-face; what’s behind it?
So “Tiny Beautiful Things” didn’t really work, for me, as a drama. Other problems, in this regard, include the plot-less structure — the letter writers simply bring up their issues, one by one, and Sugar gives her responses — and the fact that we never learn much about Sugar’s current life and struggles.
But there is wisdom and beauty in Sugar’s answers. And in the climactic scene, Vardalos’ approach finally pays big dividends. Bolger plays a devastated letter writer who communicates his plight in agonizing detail, and Sugar, deeply touched, comes up with an appropriately thorough and compassionate response. The letter writer seems to be beyond help, or comforting. It’s the ultimate challenge for an advice columnist, and Sugar rises to it.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” may be flawed and frustrating. But this scene, at least, will take your breath away.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” will be available to stream through May 23; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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