PITTSFIELD – If you need some comfort food for your heart and soul in these trying days, you’ll find plenty to sell at Hancock Shaker Village where the Chester Theater Company ends its 2021 season with impeccable, warm and inviting directing from Daniel. Elihu Kramer production of “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Nia Vardalos.
The play is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar,” a collection of letters sent to an anonymous online advice column, Dear Sugar, created by Steve Almond. At his request, Strayed took over the column in 2010 and provided advice for the next two years. The book was published in 2012, the same year as Strayed’s successful memoir, “Wild,” and, like “Wild,” became an instant hit.
For her stage adaptation, Vardalos – who also played Sugar at the Public Theater in New York City – edited some of the letters, combined others, and wrote new material.
“Dear Sugar” was not your ordinary, mundane advice column. Strayed drew on his own life to offer “enlightening rather than instructive” advice, Vardalos wrote in his introduction to his screenplay.
“My goal is not to make anyone do anything,” Sugar replies to one of his critics, signed Not Buying It. “I give advice based on my personal experience.
What emerges is a reassuring statement about the human spirit and its capacity for compassion and understanding; its strength in times of vulnerability; his need for connection and community, and the ways that spirit will reach out and find those connections when it needs it most.
What developed over a two-year period in real time takes place onstage during an evening in the living room of Sugar House – performed by Tara Franklin with understated elegance, grace, self-assurance. , warmth and a keen sense of the lessons of life. experience – which she shares with her artist husband and their two children.
It is late at night. The household sleeps. The sugar is lowered, laundry basket in hand, to put away; to breathe. A ping to his laptop signals the arrival of an email from a writer friend who is tired of writing his anonymous online advice column, Dear Sugar, and asks Strayed to take over. Her impulse is to say no, but before she can even say it, “no” comes out “yes”.
For about an hour and a half, we come to know a wide variety of men and women (played with honesty, skill and insight by James Barry, Candace Barrett Birk and Taavon Gamble) who are often simply confused by eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of life. 72-year-old married man suspects his newly widowed neighbor is spying on him when he is in his garden; another, WTF, repeatedly asks Sugar “What the fuck is this?” What the f —? “Until she finally offers him a personally revealing answer. Sexy Santa wants Sugar’s advice on a whimsical plan he has in mind to enjoy the fantasy. of his girlfriend’s Santa Claus.
Many writers are trapped in unsatisfying marriages or encounters. A writer is uncertain about the line between friendship and love.
Engaging-challenged writer Confused wonders when it’s a good time to say “I love you” to a woman he’s been dating for four months who seems to fall in love with him. “I don’t want to say this word (love) out loud because it’s loaded with fragile and easily broken promises,” Confused writes.
Sugar writers are fragile; folded, otherwise broken; seeking the strength to reach out at times when they are beset with grief; abuse; fractured relationships; confusion; curiousity; loss of an unfathomable and deeply personal genre.
A 34-year-old transgender man has cut ties with his parents in response to their reaction to his decision to have gender reassignment surgery. Now, after seven years of building a new life away from them and without them, he finds out that they want to come back into his life. “Do I forgive them and get back in touch,” the writer Orphan asks, “or should I ignore their email and stay safe on my island? “
Stuck, a woman who miscarried after six and a half months of pregnancy, struggles with extremely conflicting emotions between her. Another woman, Why Tell?, Who was raped four years earlier, wants to know if she needs to tell her boyfriend for a year and a half.
“We have to let the people who love us see what made us,” Sugar replies.
And in perhaps the most poignant exchange of an emotional evening, a writer who signs himself Living Dead Dad (Barry in an incredibly delicate and heartbreaking portrayal) struggles to find a place to put his deep sorrow in the face of the loss of her son who, almost four years earlier, was struck and killed by a drunk driver who rushed through a red light.
Under Kramer’s finely tuned direction, there is nothing cutesy, tearful or melodramatic here; just life in all its genuine sadness, humor, fantasy, irony, joy, disappointments, confusions and apparent contradictions.
Both literally and figuratively, the writers of Sugar are present. They first appear, one by one, behind the scenes on either side of the stage. It doesn’t take long, however, before they each move into the evocatively designed living room of Juliana von Haubrich; make herself comfortable while Sugar takes care of answering their letters, as she was in direct conversation, while also taking care of her “mother’s” household chores – folding the laundry; put away toys; prepare lunch bags for her children.
The feeling is that of a gathering of friends; family. They see each other ; get along with each other. They listen; take what they hear, but, with one exception, there is no physical contact between or among them. This one exception occurs at the end of Sugar’s structured list response to Living Dead Dad’s structured list letter. She walked right past him. She turns her back to him. Living Dead Dad reaches out his right hand, gently touching his right shoulder blade very briefly, then walks away. Sugar turns to him but he’s gone.
The moment is like a whisper in the wind. By touching her, Living Dead Dad touched us all.