In 2012, a writer named Cheryl Strayed published a book called Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. The book was a compilation of letters and responses from Strayed’s time as an anonymous advice columnist, “Dear Sugar,” for the online literary magazine The Rumpus from 2010-12.
Strayed received thousands of letters asking for advice, and she used many of them in her book. People reached out to her, or more accurately, to Sugar, pouring out their fears, feelings of loss, stories of abuse, confessions of lust, and all manner of visceral emotions, and Strayed responded with unflinching honesty, humor, compassion, and acceptance.
It’s the kind of story that seems tailor-made for a dramatic retelling, and that’s what My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer and star Nia Vardalos did in 2017, adapting the book with Thomas Kail and Marshall Heyman and starring as Cheryl/Sugar.
In the play, Cheryl moves around her home, reading and reacting to the letters Sugar receives, as a small group of actors follows her from kitchen to living room, essentially all around her home embodying the letter-writers and awaiting her responses, which often involve stories from her own life.
Their stories become entwined with Cheryl’s own as the play progresses, perhaps leading to a greater understanding of human nature for everyone involved.
That search for understanding is what drew PURE Theatre director Sharon Graci to the play in the first place, and made her want to helm it.
“There’s a quote from Variety that (the play) is like a theatrical hug in turbulent times,” Graci says. “And I think that that is an absolutely appropriate description of what the experience of Tiny Beautiful Things is. It is wonderfully human, and it amplifies our feeling of being part of a collective as opposed to being individuals suffering alone.”
PURE’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things, which opens this Friday, stars Cristy Landis as Cheryl and Evan Parry, Douglas Scott Streater, and Sullivan Hamilton as the letter writers. Graci says that when casting Landis as Cheryl, there was one quality she was looking for.
“Honesty,” she says. “The fact is that Cheryl is a seeker. She is giving advice, yes, but she herself is discovering her own truth as she encourages everyone else to find their own truth through their own experiences.”
Through Cheryl’s experiences with those seeking advice, she finds more than just tragedy; Graci says the play touches on many different facets of humanity and stresses a theme of universality, something she says we sorely need in today’s contentious times.
“Cheryl is responding to readers seeking help and seeking guidance, and she’s at home in her life participating in this,” she says. “It’s funny and quirky and incredibly heartfelt and deeply moving. I think that it’s for everyone not wanting to be isolated, or not wanting to be continuously at odds, or not wanting to experience the division. And that really drove the desire to produce this play now for this audience in this time.”
Interestingly enough, Graci says she avoided watching Vardalos’ version of the play, or any of the other versions that have popped up since its 2017 debut.
“I think each production is unique to the aggregate parts that make up the collective ensemble that is working on a piece of theater,” she says, “No two performances could ever be the same. Every variable that comes into play in making art has exponential ripple effects that are beyond definition.”
What does define Tiny Beautiful Things, though, is its intimacy. A story like this requires a stripped-down presentation, and Graci says her experience working with small-scale productions helped her direct PURE’s version effectively.
“I think that one of the greatest strengths that I bring to my work as a director is that I came up through very, very small venues with limited resources,” she says. “So it forced me to always concentrate on the essence of character and storytelling. And that will absolutely be the background of this production as well.”
Graci adds, though, that she wouldn’t have been quite as comfortable with a minimal approach earlier in her career.
“When I was younger, It was harder for me to get out of my own way,” she says, “until I realized that getting out of my own way wasn’t running from the deficits. It was actually walking into perceived deficits and limitations and allowing complications and lack of resources to not be impediments, but to actually be the opportunities for the greatest creative solutions. It was remaining open to all possibilities within the process.”
Whatever the presentation, Graci says she hopes the audience walks away from Tiny Beautiful Things feeling a little less isolated.
“The idea is that each person’s path will continue to unfold,” she says, “but you do not walk alone.” Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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