The notion of an advice columnist brings up strange memories. There’s Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, the dark novella about a Depression-era newspaper columnist who is driven mad by the horrific desperation of the letters he receives. Then there’s “Ask Ann Landers” and “Dear Abby,” the rival syndicated columns written by identical twin sisters, doling out commonsense advice with a dollop of middle-class respectability.
They have little in common with the online advice column “Dear Sugar” on the website The Rumpus, which for two years (2010–2012) was written anonymously by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed would eventually reveal herself to “Dear Sugar” readers and compile her columns into the best-selling book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. The book was in turn adapted into a stage play by Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, premiering in 2016 at the Public Theater in New York with Vardalos starring as Sugar. That play is now having its Cape Cod premiere at the Provincetown Theater, directed by Rebecca Berger and starring Sara Fitzpatrick as Sugar, with William Mullin, Tom Sharp, and Anne Stott playing the various letter writers.
None of this curious pedigree will prepare you for the beautiful (and anything but tiny) language of Strayed’s column, the powerful performances by the cast here, or the theatrical wallop of this production, arriving as it does in late autumn when the company’s artistic director, David Drake, has usually presented more light-hearted fare. Tiny Beautiful Things is, instead, a knockout of a play.
The ostensible subject is healing, but the dramatic interplay of beleaguered online letter writers and Sugar’s passionate and intelligent responses goes far beyond that. One writer might bring up the malaise of not knowing love, another the constant misery of missing a grown son killed in an accident. Sugar never answers with prefab wisdom or psychobabble. Instead, she digs into her past — which is replete with sexual abuse, heroin addiction, family dysfunction, and a failed marriage. Her experiences give her genuine empathy and surprising depth, and they offer a direct connection to grief that never seems patronizing or hypothetical. That’s because Sugar is not about self-reflection, even though she spends a good deal of time talking about herself. She’s about true understanding. And she expresses herself with the down-to-earth poetry of a pragmatic survivor.
Vardalos’s adaptation, big fat weddings notwithstanding, is a marvelous tapestry of questions and answers. It’s not exactly a narrative, but Strayed’s life provides the thread. The play is just short of an hour and a half without intermission, and the time moves swiftly. Berger keeps the actors stepping in and around the audience and up and down three raised platforms — scenic designer Ellen Rousseau has created a vast theater-in-the-round in the nearly bare building with four black walls and a beige floor illustrated with leafless trees. Your eyes magically follow the action as it pulses with seemingly random, intricate clockwork and goes from letter to letter to Sugar and back without self-conscious cues. The lighting, by Stephen Petrilli, shifts with musical precision.
And the performances are stunning. Fitzpatrick, as Sugar, is the only one who sticks with her character throughout, and she is riveting. She preserves an element of discovery in her voice that gives it intensity without having to raise the volume. In contrast, the three actors who are the letter writers — Mullin, Sharp, and Stott — cover a lot of ground and switch gears from character to character with expert modulation. The gender they’re playing is often beside the point. Sometimes they’re lost and yearning, sometimes they’re percolating with emotion. All three are moving and evocative.
Despite the generally grim subjects of Tiny Beautiful Things, the experience of watching it is more exhilarating than depressing. That is partly because of the vitality of this Provincetown production and partly because of Strayed’s trajectory. In the play’s present, she’s married with two children, trying to make it as a writer. The tales of abuse are in the past. That gives a measure of hope and redemption. And sure enough, Strayed herself published the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012 (the same year as Tiny Beautiful Things). It received Oprah’s book club imprimatur, became a best seller, and eventually was adapted into a movie with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.
Tiny Beautiful Things is not your typical holiday entertainment. There’s lots of swearing and explicit sexual talk — clearly not fare for the whole family. But Provincetown is not your typical beach resort. The Public Theater production was set in Strayed’s home, but the stage here feels as open as the National Seashore. And, in fact, Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column lived in cyberspace — a nowheresville that befits the lonely hearts of social media. The play is a perfect Thanksgiving engagement for the Outer Cape: a celebration of life with all its thorns.
The event: Tiny Beautiful Things, a play by Nia Vardalos, adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s book
The time: Through Dec. 4, Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. (except Thursday, Nov. 24), Sunday at 2 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St.
The cost: $44.45 at provincetowntheater.org or 508-487-7487