Before Wild vaulted her to fame and fortune, Cheryl Strayed offered literally free advice. She wrote (for free) the “Dear Sugar” column at the Rumpus from 2010-’12. Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame decided that the columns, which were published in book form under the title Tiny Beautiful Things, were stageworthy.
They are—though admittedly it took a little while for Vanessa Stalling’s staging at Victory Gardens to work its magic on me. But that’s also in keeping with the tenor of the columns themselves. Strayed wrote them pseudonymously (as had Steve Almond, who had the gig before her), and the early insistence from readers that she reveal herself paradoxically clashes with their sometimes-needling observations that she tends to write about herself a lot. “I’ll bet you think this has nothing to do with your question,” she self-deprecatingly notes at one point.
It’s hard to imagine this show working as well as it does without Janet Ulrich Brooks as Strayed. She brings the right mix of vinegar and sweetness to her Sugar, which makes the sections that begin to veer into emotional manipulation go down easy. Courtney O’Neill’s set places the action in a cool gray-and-teal diner whose initial sterility grows warmer as Strayed builds trust with those who write to her. (August Forman, Eric Slater, and Jessica Dean Turner play all the letter writers with great emotional range, from droll to desperate.)
There isn’t a discernible narrative arc to the order of the letters, necessarily. But what does build is a sense that empathy requires the ability to sit with our own stories and those of others and not look away from the pain, the ridiculousness, the mistakes, and the moral failings as we make our way through what Strayed describes as “the obliterated place” that is “equal parts destruction and creation.” v