How do you bring an advice column to life?
In “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a woman sits on her couch, tapping out wisdom on her laptop to total strangers she will never meet in person. Making themselves right at home in her living room, however, are three other figures who rarely interact directly with her, or each other, but represent an array of the anonymous “letter writers” flooding her inbox with queries about conundrums trivial and profound.
A script existing largely of quotations from emails, even one lasting roughly 100 minutes, does not promise a lively theatrical experience. But while limited by its format, this stage adaptation by Nia Vardalos of the Cheryl Strayed book “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” eventually transcends its limitations — just as Strayed transcended the jaunty, self-mocking tone that began her stint as an advice maven for the online literary zine Rumpus.
While writing her blockbuster memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” which documented a life-changing trek she took, Strayed agreed on a whim to write the advice column. She used the pen name Sugar, admitted she was no psychologist, and seemed almost cavalier in her introductory, I-don’t-take-this-too-seriously tone.
But as she later revealed in “Tiny Beautiful Things,” that tone shifted as the letters poured in. Trying to help, it seems, reaped rewards for the helper.
In the play, the trio of nimble actors playing Sugar’s correspondents (Charles Leggett, Chantal DeGroat and Justin Huertas) voice a barrage of humorous queries about dating and mating.
But they also pose soul-searching questions to Strayed, played with warmth and worldly-wise intelligence by Julie Briskman. How to deal with profound loss and grief? With extreme loneliness? With hurtful extramarital affairs? With miscarriages? And memories of rape?
These questing agonies put “Sugar” in a spot most of us would find difficult: what do you say, for instance, when a friend reveals a terrible, scarring secret? How do you provide equal parts comfort and candor to someone in pain? And who do you think you are anyway, when you don’t know what it feels like to walk even a block in their shoes?
In Strayed’s account, compassion means listening, communing and responding deeply from the well of her own challenging life — the same well that has nourished “Wild” and her other writings. In one instance she almost casually references her former heroin addiction. In another, she recalls in graphic detail receiving years of childhood sexual abuse from her grandfather, and the traumatic aftereffects.
If at times her advice can sound like the contents of a New Age greeting card, much of what “Sugar” imparts is less prepackaged. It is rooted in a credo of joy snatched from agony, of “radical serenity” and equally radical honesty with oneself. It is a celebration of the big picture, as well as “the ordinary miraculous” — the “tiny beautiful things” that can come out of nowhere, to make life livable.
At one point a reader accuses Strayed of giving contradictory counsel when asked if correspondents should leave or remain in unsatisfying relationships. But Strayed defends the contradictions and polarities that lace her responses — she knows how life can be “terrible” and “sweet,” concurrently. And that awareness of the dialectical nature of experience serves her, and her writing, well.
Courtney Sale (the artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre) stages “Tiny Beautiful Things” smoothly, with occasional mini-bursts of activity to stave off stagnation. (A large bean bag chair on L.B. Morse’s lived-in, living room set is put to good use.)
And the scale of the acting is as intimate and un-histrionic as it should be. This is most affecting in the climactic letter from a man shattered over the loss of an adored young son. As he quietly describes the void of emptiness and loss engulfing him, Leggett’s face crumples in pain, his voice cracks — but it happens gradually, which makes his agony all the more real to us.
How to answer such pure, raw grief? Sugar acknowledges it, affirms it. But she suggests he frames his sorrow this way: “My grief is enormous, but my love is bigger.” Somehow, that helps.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed, adapted by Nia Vardalos. Through June 23; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets start at $17; 206-443-2222, seattlerep.org