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'Beautiful Things' Revealed In Stage Adaptation Of Cheryl Strayed's Advice Column

Nia Vardalos stars in <em>Tiny Beautiful Things, </em>a stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's book of <em></em>"Dear Sugar" advice columns.
Joan Marcus
Public Theater
Nia Vardalos stars in Tiny Beautiful Things, a stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's book of "Dear Sugar" advice columns.

Cheryl Strayed — author of the bestselling memoir Wild — was still an unknown writer when she started an anonymous advice column called "Dear Sugar." She remembers reading and writing things "that we don't normally say to people in the public space," she recalls — and those intimate exchanges made her explore her own life more deeply. "I always think of the 'Dear Sugar' column as, like, therapy in the town square."

Now that town square is the Public Theater in New York. Actress and writer Nia Vardalos, of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Thomas Kail, the director of Hamilton, have collaborated to create an unlikely off-Broadway play based on Strayed's bestselling book of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things.

The set is a kind of messy house where Vardalos, as Strayed's alias, Sugar, makes lunch for her kids or folds laundry, while she answers questions from three actors who inhabit the very same space, playing a variety of ages and genders.

"You know who I am. I reveal myself to you in every column," Strayed's character "Sugar" says.

And, in revealing herself, Sugar reveals more about our common humanity, without ever telling people what to do or how to think, says Vardalos. Sugar's not Dear Abby or Ann Landers: "Cheryl uses storytelling to reveal something about herself," Vardalos explains, to "make the person feel like: It's OK, it's OK. You show me yours, and I will show you mine."

The play came about because a friend gave director Thomas Kail the book Tiny Beautiful Things, which he then gave it to Vardalos. She read it cover to cover on a flight from New York to LA, and through her tears, called Kail on the tarmac to say she wanted to adapt it. But she knew it couldn't be a traditional theatrical narrative.

"Rather than try to create something that I'd seen before, I thought: I don't care if this is a play, if it's a monologue, if it's a theatrical experience," Vardalos recalls. "I can't worry about the finished product. I'm just going to explore."

Kail says that exploration has yielded an unconventional and emotional 75-minute theatrical journey.

"I wanted it to be an experience where you walked into the dark and this thing unfolded and there was some sort of ritual that was embraced ..." Kail says. "It was not about plot. It was about feeling, it was about empathy. It was about being heard."

Kail says there's a reason Strayed's words resonate — and why so many people give her book to one another. It's "about something very simple," he says: "I see you. I hear you. You are known."

He hopes audiences feel the same way.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.