Why do we ask for advice? On one level, we do so for practical reasons: we recognize that we have problems and need answers. Even more fundamentally, we want to be seen and affirmed. There is also a performative aspect at play that comes with inviting a stranger inside our psyche. All of these elements are on display in a dramatization of the “Dear Sugar” advice column, as Tiny Beautiful Things gets its local premiere at the Arden Theatre Company.
If the words “advice column” conjure images of Ann Landers and letter-writers complaining about obnoxious mothers-in-law, think again. The counsel-seekers who query Dear Sugar—which began its life on the online alternative publication The Rumpus, and was helmed by the novelist and memoirist Cheryl Strayed—have much heavier subjects in their purview. They contemplate suicide and how to move forward in the wake of devastating loss. They question whether they should mend fences with parents who rejected their gender identity. They grapple with miscarriages, eating disorders, and affairs of the emotional and physical variety.
Across eighty intermission-less minutes, the audience watches Sugar/Cheryl (Emilie Krause) consider these questions, which are delivered by a shape-shifting ensemble that includes Akeem Davis, Joilet Harris, and Bailey Roper. Co-conceivers Nia Vardalos, Thomas Kail, and Marshall Heyman lift language verbatim from published letters and from Strayed’s responses, which occasionally accounts for sharp tonal dissonance. Humor gives way to pathos—and, sometimes, to bathos—before circling back again.
There is little about Tiny Beautiful Things that is inherently dramatic. It poses a problem, and renders an answer. Rinse, repeat. I hesitate to even call it a play. Watching Maura Krause’s fluidly staged production, I often thought of the term “choreopoem” that Ntozake Shange coined for her dance/theater hybrid for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The action is non-narrative and nonlinear, and the results are occasionally static.
They can also be surprisingly moving. This is largely a testament to the performers. Davis cuts through sentiment as a father who lost his son to a drunk driver, and who struggles to exist in a world that no longer includes his child. Harris, a wonderful comic performer, tamps down her naturally outsize personality in several quietly affecting moments. Roper, an actor previously unknown to me, feels like a real discovery—I look forward to seeing them in future roles. Together, the three actors keep the engine of the production chugging along, especially when the script devolves into the territory of sound-bite therapy.
The pitfalls of self-help
To be sure, some of Sugar’s advice lands on the glib side of self-help. When she tells the trans correspondent to reconcile with his unaccepting parents for himself and not for them, she feeds into the American forgiveness fetishization that undercuts the legitimate trauma experienced by wronged parties. Some of Strayed’s responses seem geared toward helping her clear her own emotional roadblocks, rather than being germane to the advice seeker.
The authors intend for us to see how Strayed becomes Sugar, growing more and more comfortable facing tough issues head-on. This doesn’t always come through in Emilie Krause’s somewhat monochromatic and disaffected performance. At her best, she communicates the idea that Sugar is not some magic oracle who holds the key to fixing every one of life’s disturbances. But I also wonder what a more charismatic performer might have done with the role.
“The ordinary miraculous”
I also wonder how the material might come across in a more traditionally realized production. Christopher Haig supplies a visually striking set, with a ruched papier-mâché background and a sea of falling leaves, which Mike Inwood lights with extreme speculativeness. Lucas Campbell furnishes a gently ambient score. Taken together, the visual elements produce an almost hypnotic effect. Yet an aesthetic more firmly grounded in reality might complement the sense of human tragedy and resilience that Tiny Beautiful Things seeks to convey.
After all, Sugar speaks with reverence of “the ordinary miraculous.” I am sure many audience members will find it herein. My advice? See it, and decide for yourself.
What, When, Where
Tiny Beautiful Things. Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos. Directed by Maura Krause. Through December 8, 2019, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden Theatre Company is an ADA-compliant venue. There will be audio-described and open-captioned performances of Tiny Beautiful Things on Friday, November 15 at 8pm and Saturday, November 16 at 2pm.