While watching “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a stage version at the Public Theater of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book, I started to wonder whether it made sense to try to adapt a collection of advice columns on stage, even ones as literate and touching as Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns, and even in an adaptation by an artist as talented as Nia Vardalos, best-known as the writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
I stopped wondering when Alfredo Narciso, one of the three actors portraying the various letter-writers, recited the letter from an advice-seeker that was in the form of a list of 22 items. The list stopped at 22; that was the age at which his son was killed by a drunken driver. He signed it “Living Dead Dad.” Vardalos as Sugar then replies with a list of her own, containing 24 items. I can tell you that she talked about her own mother’s death at a young age; I can quote an especially striking comment on her list:
“Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.”
What is harder to communicate is how unbearably moving Narciso and Vardalos made these recitations.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” inspires such strong emotional reactions that the awkward set-up winds up not mattering much. Vardalos putters around an elaborate re-creation of Strayed’s home, one that’s better furnished and (almost) more cluttered than my own. She absentmindedly goes about her household chores — washing dishes, folding laundry – while the three other actors stand around in her home, looking weirdly out of place, as they take turns reciting the various letters, to which she then responds. The letters and the responses are largely faithful to the text of Strayed’s book, although they are sometimes trimmed, and they are put in an artful order; on rare occasion, the actors more or less act out a scene from a letter or a response.
Strayed’s approach to advice is to find stories from her own life, and so “Tiny Beautiful Things” functions as a kind of memoir. We learn that the last word her mother said to her was “love” – she was too sick and weak to muster the “I” or the “you.” We learn that Strayed’s grandfather sexually abused her when she was a toddler, and that Strayed got pregnant by a heroin addict while she herself was using the drug. What’s most startling and rewarding about her stories is not just that they are told well, but that they are applied to advice-seeker’s dilemmas to which they don’t on the surface seem relevant. To “Stuck,” who writes that she can’t get over her miscarriage, Sugar tells the story of a job she had as a youth advocate for “at risk” middle school girls. Their families were so abusive to them that she called the police and child protection services, but “no one did anything. So I told the girls something different. This will not stop. It will go on and you have to find a place within yourself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if you aren’t able to do that, then your whole life will be shit, forever and ever and ever. You have to do more than hold on. You have to reach….You have to reach for your desire to heal.”
“Tiny Beautiful Things” ends with Sugar, as portrayed by all four actors, offering a string of advice to her younger self, concluding with: “During the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus one hot afternoon and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are. A little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”
Is it too schmaltzy to call this play a tiny beautiful thing?
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
Based on the Book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kailand Nia Vardalos
Directed by Thomas Kail
Featuring Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, Miriam Silverman, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Nia Vardalos (Sugar)
Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck
Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Sound Design by Jill BC Du Boff
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Tiny Beautiful Things is scheduled to run through December 31, 2016