By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Cheryl Strayed published her book “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” in 2012, based on several of the actual letters she had received and responded to as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online literary magazine.
Using the street-smart sense of a woman who had survived sexual abuse, divorce, drug addiction and self-destructive behavior, Sugar dispensed advice to her readers, but not in the typical lofty, informed parlance of someone who knows better than others. Her responses were gleaned from her own broken past and how she personally dealt with infidelity, heroin addiction, abortion and self-loathing behavior. Her no nonsense answers to her readers’ letters resonated with humor and the gut-wrenching truth she had found from her own life experience.
Sugar spoke with authority, but with an authentic sense of her own self and a secure knowledge of where she was in the universe. “I will be open with you. I will be bare,” Laiona Mitchell as Sugar assures her other cast members, representative of her readers. “I will show you my brokenness and my strengths. I will do my best to give my best advice…and I don’t know if that advice is wrong or right. It’s what I believe to be true.”
But that may seem to be counterintuitive; after all, advice columnists position themselves as all-knowing and sagacious, she continues to explain. “I’m the one who doesn’t know, but who will work really, really hard to see what she can find out. That’s who I am. Who are you? Signed…Sugar.”
The ensemble of excellent players are John Bolger (Alfredo), Kally Dulling (Natalie) and Ryan George (Phillip), each representing a number of lovelorn or confused readers seeking advice. They each play a variety of roles, sometimes playing opposite their own gender and making comments or posing questions. As Sugar, Mitchell supplies the answers, but so much more.
The answers peel back the painful memories she holds onto in a life-affirming manner. Oftentimes, the answers seem incongruous with the questions, but Sugar connects the dots. The sudden demise of her young mother in a desolate hospital room is the starting point of this journey back into Sugar’s shell-shocked life. Her weak and dying mother summons up the strength to utter the one word she can express to her daughter: “love.”
The echo of that one word, without the implied noun”I” and object “you” resonates within Sugar as a young woman and even into present day. In order to deaden the pain of her existence, which we learn included dealing with divorce and sexual abuse by a grandfather, Sugar was using heroin to deaden the pain of her existence. The danger of drug abuse was compounded further by an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy by her junkie lover and an eventual abortion.
Mitchell’s ownership of the pent up pain Sugar recalls is retold with an innate understanding of loss and empathy for her readers. She never reproves them or is critical of them for their indiscretions. She possesses a matronly smile when comforting a woman reader who suffered a miscarriage or a transgender male who wants to know how to respond to his parents after they have reached out to him following years of a painful separation.
The man with the Santa suit ponders if he is creepy when he learns of his girlfriend’s turn on for Pere Noel and the response by Sugar that he should fill her stocking as only Santa knows how is a bit naughty and nice at the same time.
A former female victim of sexual assault in a good relationship writes to Sugar. Should she inform her boyfriend of her past history or keep it secret? Sugar congratulates her on her ability to find love and enjoy a healthy sexual relationship with the new boyfriend.
But not confiding with the new boyfriend, she admonishes, can have repercussions. “Keeping this trauma from your boyfriend doesn’t let him know what a warrior you are,” she responds. “We have to let the people who love us see what made us. Tell him about your sexual assault. What happened. How you suffered. How you made your way through it. How you feel about it now. Tell him. Otherwise it creates the burden of a secret you are too wonderful to keep. Yours, Sugar.”
Deftly directed by David Saint, Nia Vardalos’ riveting manuscript, which she adapted for the stage along with Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and Marshall Heyman, is based on Strayed’s best-selling original work. It is filled with moments of raw, visceral revelations such as found in “The Baby Bird,” a scene in which Sugar connects the repressed rage surrounding her sexual victimization as a little girl and her shocking reaction – or rather, overreaction – to it.
Her readers continually press her for literal epistles of her wisdom and in the process make small, tender connections. Sometimes, though, the issues are gargantuan.
One reader expresses anger at losing an only child to a drunk driver and the inconsolable father who cannot write a letter, composes a list instead. He signs it “Living, dead dad.” Sugar answers with a list of her own and leads her response back to her mother’s passing, acknowledging “my grief taught me things. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.”
Over the course of the 90 minutes of the play, Mitchell, as Sugar, reveals the hurt she suffered from the fractious nature of the relationship with her mentally abusive father. She gives her readers her take on the thorny issue of why people, including her past self, steal. Ultimately, she connects to her readers in unexpected and intimate ways and finds herself in a more assured and peaceful place.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Nia Vardalos continues its online run now through May 23. It is directed by George Street Playhouse artistic director David Saint with cinematography and editing by Michael Boyland. Music and sound editing is by Ryan Rummery. Tickets for $33 to see the on demand work are available here.