Feature photo: Bailey Roper, Akeem Davis, Emilie Krause, and Joilet Harris. Photo by Wide Eyed Studios
Here’s a thought or two for you. Advice columns. If you were to send in a letter to one, seeking advice obviously, would you prefer to not know who is giving you advice? Or are you looking for a name and credentials? Does it matter? Does knowing make the response more acceptable? Does knowing give you a finger to point at if you don’t like what they tell you? Did you ever wonder- by asking for advice, could it be possible that the answer is helping other people reading it as well…including the person who is giving the advice?
Tiny Beautiful Things, based on Cheryl Strayed’s best selling book highlighting pieces of the “Dear Sugar” advice column from online literary magazine The Rumpus, tackles these questions and answers. The four-person show is 80 minutes of emotions as we meet a collection of anonymous people seeking out advice from Strayed. Throughout most of her run as writer of the column, she was also anonymous.
Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), along with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail, developed the book for stage (with Vardalos playing Cheryl Strayed in the original off-Broadway run). You may be familiar with Strayed’s book Wild; a memoir about her solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-nineties following the death of her mother and a recent divorce. When Strayed took over the “Dear Sugar” advice column, she had already submitted a first draft of Wild and impulsively agreed to take over the column after a friend had grown tired of writing it. In Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed tells the audience that she should have said no- she was busy with other writing jobs and caring for her two children. She had student debt. She had no experience in advice columns. But, something told her to give this unpaid gig a try anyway.
Tiny Beautiful Things features Emilie Krause as Cheryl Strayed. While none of us can be sure of what was really going through Strayed’s head as she read and responded to the people who wrote her, it’s pretty safe to say that Krause truly becomes Cheryl. She grabs the audience from the first “Yours, Sugar” sign off and doesn’t let go until the lights go dark and the show ends. Strayed, as Sugar, is no Dear Abby. She’s doesn’t actually sugarcoat things, she relates letters to personal experiences no matter how raw and heartbreaking they may be, and she tries her best to truly connect with the strangers who reach out to her. Emilie Krause makes us feel this connection and makes us feel that everything Strayed went through in the past has brought her to becoming a trustworthy advice columnist.
Actors Akeem Davis, Joilet Harris, and Bailey Roper play the writers who interact with Krause’s character. Each actor reaches out to “Dear Sugar” numerous times in the play; each time becoming someone else. They take real-life letters that were sent to Strayed and become the people behind those letters. It can’t be an easy task- to bounce from one character to the next, without actually knowing who any of these people really are. Yet, Davis, Harris, and Roper do it so well. Throughout the play, these writers also are seen interacting with one another- a touch on the back, building something together from the various rocks and leaves on stage, laughing or gasping at what someone else is saying. These small interactions hint that we are not alone. No matter how strange or serious or uneasy a situation may be- forms of love and loss are heavily discussed- someone out there will read what you’re saying and think “yeah, I’ve been there too. I understand you.”
“Dear Sugar” became an outlet for Strayed to reveal information about herself to the column’s readers. Though it wasn’t necessarily intentional, we realize that by writing “Dear Sugar” for two years, she was helping herself heal from all of the negative experiences in her past. Her advice and personal stories became therapeutic not just for others but also for herself. Something as small as a letter or blog post turned into something big- one writer seeking advice possibly helped hundreds more who may have been searching for similar answers. I’m betting all of the audience members last night could also relate to something- big or little- that the writers or Strayed experienced. Maybe you will too.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a sad, serious, sometimes funny, thought-provoking, tear-jerking, tell-it-like-it-is type of play. Please go see it at The Arden Theatre Company between now and December 8th. Ticket information is available here.