How do you turn an online advice column into a moving and theatrical exploration of humanity?
You begin with Cheryl Strayed, perhaps best known as the writer of the memoir "Wild," who also spent several years writing for the website the Rumpus as the advice columnist "Dear Sugar." Then take the book that collects several essays from that column — "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" — and get actress, writer and producer Nia Vardalos (of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame) to write and star in a stage adaptation.
Vardalos’ adaptation of the book, simply titled "Tiny Beautiful Things," is now the latest production in Austin Playhouse’s season, directed by Rosalind Faires and starring Barbara Chisholm as Sugar (with Lowell Bartholomee, Crystal Bird Caviel and John Christopher as a kind of Greek chorus of various letter writers).
As might be expected of the stage adaptation of an advice column, elements of Vardalos’ script are slightly uneven. There’s a subtle difference between language written for an essay and that written for a monologue. As such, it’s impossible to escape the sensibility throughout that the cast is reciting rather than acting. This fades over the course of the play, though, as the questions and answers both become more intensely emotional, allowing for deeper mining of the material from the performers, especially Chisholm.
The format of "Tiny Beautiful Things" follows Sugar answering questions on a variety of subjects about life and love, all from her living room, ostensibly over the course of one night. The hyper-realistic set from Mike Toner and semi-surrealist dusk-to-dawn lighting from Don Day coalesce to create a sense of timelessness, leaving the work of storytelling solely to the text.
Eventually, though, the essays begin to converge around subjects of trauma and grief, providing a narrative arc as Sugar reveals more and more of herself and her own history to her readers. It’s then that Chisholm truly shines, bringing a depth to the essays that is at turns harrowing and heartwarming. (Bartholomee is also given a stunning moment, reading a letter written by a father whose only child has died.)
As the essays grow ever more powerful, the unconventional narrative structure becomes less of a frustration. What feels like something of a gimmick in the play’s earliest moments ultimately comes to be a profoundly moving experience. Sugar and her writers exchange in a give-and-take of words and feelings that emphasizes the power of an open heart and of a life fully lived to overcome the oppressiveness of grief.
Tiny, beautiful things that are these letters and answers cohere into a jewel-like piece of stagecraft that will both break and mend your heart.