By Sandi Durell
Advice to those who are in need is a double-edged sword . . . especially from one who isn’t licensed other than by life’s experiences. Trying to bring real substance to Cheryl Strayed’s popular book ‘Dear Sugar’ on stage creates its own problems. The adaptation by a genuinely fine storyteller, Nia Vardalos, who plays the role of Strayed/Sugar is enticing. Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail (Hamilton fame director) together with Ms. Vardalos conceived this production currently at the Newman Theater at the Public Theater.
The clever directorial effort by Thomas Kail allows the actors to remain visible to the audience, not to each other, moving about the busily cluttered home of Strayed/Sugar (designed by Rachel Hauck with lighting by Jeff Croiter) in their own spaces, eating, drinking, lounging on the couch or chairs as they bombard Dear Sugar with unending day to day questions about life, love and sadness. What should I do?
And so Sugar, a self-proclaimed therapist, who bases her responses to the voluminous incoming emails of problems on her own life experiences, has the ability to come up with answers that seem helpful. However, she uses their situations to delve into and explain her own life . . . i.e. the loss of her mother and the ever lasting word she heard from her – Love; her drug problems and all-to-early sexual awareness (at age 6) with her grandfather, to find personal solutions while giving advice to the many others who seek her council. But isn’t that what therapists do . . . work out their own life problems through listening, explaining, helping their patients and thereby analyzing themselves.
However, after 85 minutes of hearing “Dear Sugar” – utilizing the same format, over and over, it begins to get tedious. Yes, many of the situations are designed to tear at the heartstrings, and some do, or elicit a laugh when frivilous – like the girl who loses her job but makes an arrangement with a married man to provide sexual favors for $1000 a month and wants to know is this taxable income! Sugar certainly displays a gigantic balloon of empathy; she overflows with kindness and great emotion attempting to give solace and answers to a girl (Natalie Woolams Torres) who had a miscarriage and can’t seem to move forward with her life thinking about the baby that might have been; or the truly agonizing grief of a father (a heartfelt performance by Teddy Canez) who lost his only son at the age of 20 and can’t contain his daily grief and suffering; or the problems and complaints that arise from a young man having too many girlfriends (Hubert Point-Du Jour). Yes, Dear Sugar is there for all of them and comes up with solutions. The emails keep coming and so does the advice, her fans desperate to know who she really is.
But the real Tiny Beautiful Things don’t show themselves until the end . . . the resolution of the beautiful red child’s dress Strayed had bought years before when her mother was alive and prompted the purchase at a yard sale, or the little girl who appeared on a bus offering her a balloon she didn’t take when Strayed was strung out on drugs.
I did come away feeling that Tiny Beautiful Things is an offering of hope, how we deal with and emerge whole (or partially) from the many problems common to humanity with acceptance, forgiveness, caring and love. . . how we must find the tiny beautiful things that make us better. And I also came away with the feeling of how an audience can be manipulated.
Alert: A real distraction throughout the production is the subway that runs under/near the theater that provides constant noise and vibration.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Tiny Beautiful Things, The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, runs 85 minutes thru December 10.