PITTSFIELD — If you are in need of comfort food for your heart and your soul in these troublesome days, you will find plenty to spare at Hancock Shaker Village where Chester Theatre Company is ending its 2021 season with Daniel Elihu Kramer’s impeccably directed, warm, inviting production of Nia Vardalos’ “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
The play is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar,” a collection of letters sent to an anonymous online advice column, Dear Sugar, which was created by Steve Almond. At his request, Strayed took over the column in 2010 and dispensed advice over the next two years. The book was published in 2012, the same year as Strayed’s bestselling 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 — edited some of the letters, combined others and wrote some new material.
“Dear Sugar” was not your average, run-of-the-mill advice column. Strayed drew on her own life to offer advice that was “illuminating rather than instructive,” Vardalos wrote in her introduction to her script.
“My goal isn’t to make anyone do anything,” Sugar responds to one of her critics, signed Not Buying It. “I’m offering 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 at times of vulnerability; its need for connection and community, and the ways in which that spirit will reach out and find those connections when it needs it most.
What developed over a period of two years in real time unfolds onstage in the course of one evening in the living room of the home Sugar — played by Tara Franklin with understated elegance, grace, assurance, warmth and a keen sense of lessons learned from life experience — which she shares with her artist husband and their two children.
It is late evening. The household is asleep. Sugar has come downstairs, laundry basket in hand, to tidy up; breathe. A ping on her laptop signals the arrival of an email from a writer friend who has grown tired of writing his anonymous online advice column, Dear Sugar, and is asking Strayed to take over. Her impulse is to say no but even before she can say it, “no” comes out “yes.”
For the next hour and a half or so 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 life’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. A 72-year-old married man suspects his newly widowed neighbor is spying on him when he’s in his backyard; another, WTF, repeatedly asks Sugar “What the f---? What the f---?” until she finally offers him a personally revealing answer. Sexy Santa wants Sugar’s opinion about a whimsical plan he has in mind to take advantage of his girlfriend’s Santa Claus fantasy.
Several writers are trapped in unsatisfying marriages or dating situations. One writer is uncertain about the line between friendship and love.
One commitment-challenged writer, Confused, wonders when it is the right time to say “I love you” to a woman he’s been dating for four months and who appears to be falling in love with him. “I don’t want to say that word (love) out loud because it comes loaded with promises that are fragile and easily broken,” Confused writes.
Sugar’s writers are fragile; bent, if not broken; looking for the strength to reach out at times they are beset by grief; abuse; fractured relationships; confusion; curiosity; loss of an unfathomable, deeply personal kind.
A 34-year-old transgender man has cut off all ties to his parents in response to their reaction to his decision to have sex reassignment surgery. Now, after seven years of building a new life away from and without them, he finds they want to come back into his life. “Do I forgive them and get back in touch,” the writer, Orphan asks, “or do I ignore their email and stay safe on my island?”
Stuck, a woman who miscarried six-and-a-half months into her pregnancy, is wrestling with wrenchingly conflicting emotions that are pulling her apart. Another woman, Why Tell?, who was raped four years earlier, wants to know whether she should tell her boyfriend of a year-and-a-half.
“We need to let the people who love us see what made us,” Sugar replies.
And in perhaps the most poignant exchange in an evening rich with poignancy, a writer who signs himself Living Dead Dad (Barry in a tear-inducing unbearably delicate portrayal) struggles to find a place to put his deep, deep grief over the loss of his son who, nearly four years earlier, was struck and killed by a drunk driver who plowed through a red light at full speed.
Under Kramer’s finely tuned direction there is nothing mawkish, maudlin or melodramatic here; just life in all its authentic sadness, humor, whimsy, irony, its joy, disappointments, confusions and seeming contradictions.
Literally and figuratively, Sugar’s writers are very much present. They initially appear, one by one, in the shadowy wings on either side of the stage. It is not long, however, before they each move into Juliana von Haubrich’s evocatively designed living room; making themselves at home while Sugar goes about the business of answering their letters, as of she were in direct conversation, while also attending to her “mother” chores — folding the laundry; putting away toys; preparing lunch bags for her kids.
The feeling is that of a gathering of friends; family. They see each other; hear one another. They listen; take in what they hear, but, with one exception, there is no physical contact between or among them. That single exception occurs at the end of Sugar’s list-structured response to Living Dead Dad’s list-structured letter. She has moved just past him. Her back is toward him. Living Dead Dad reaches out with his right hand, gently touching her right shoulder blade ever-so-briefly and then moves away. Sugar turns to face him but he is gone.
The moment is like a whisper in the wind. In touching her, Living Dead Dad has touched us all.