“Be brave,” the advice columnist tells a reader facing a harrowing choice.
“Find your tribe,” she tells another who suffers alone.
To “Stuck,” paralyzed by grief, she gives wisdom that resonates throughout Tiny Beautiful Things, playing through Dec. 8 at the Arden Theatre Company: “You have to do more than hold on — you have to reach.”
This humane, often moving play turns Cheryl Strayed’s wildly popular online advice column “Dear Sugar” into intimate exchanges onstage and shows, surprise, that anonymous social media can create real, lasting community.
In this 2017 stage adaptation by Nia Vardalos (yes, Toula from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding), three actors — Akeem Davis, Bailey Roper, and Joilet F. Harris — orbit Emilie Krause, who plays Strayed, a writer who accepts the unpaid gig of advice columnist for the online magazine Rumpus.
Playing multiple characters apiece, they flood her with questions and stories, and Strayed invents a new form that brings herself and her life, with all its own failures, crimes, regrets, and losses, into the discussion.
Krause plays her in Tiny Beautiful Things as wide-eyed, wide-open, humble, even girlish, not as tough or edgy as the real-life Strayed. Yes, she lacks credentials, and yes, her advice is “all over the place.” She writes off her gut.
Strayed and play alike are weakest when most New Age-y, strongest when the columnist lays herself widest open. Her only authority is that she, too, has failed and suffered — especially the loss of her mother, which colors everything. Healing, she tells us, “is a fierce place … and you have to work really, really, really hard to get there.”
That’s counsel to dwell on: All who suffer, and that’s all of us, must do the work of healing, but first there’s the work of struggling toward it.
All four actors shine. Roper commands a breathtaking range of characters, from silly schoolkids to adults pondering gender reassignment surgery. We get both the fidgety teen and the abused child, the “knuckleheaded” guy who’s split (he thinks) between two loves and an adult who wonders whether to get back in touch with his dad.
Harris is wonderful throughout: She is a center of compassion — both giving it and needing it. Should she tell her man that she once was raped? She’s afraid. Elsewhere, she’s a mother wrestling with loss, connecting with warm force.
Krause as Strayed develops a kind of love for her readers, her “sweet peas.” During her answers to their letters, the other voices join in, as if focusing the whole community’s love on the letter writer.
If there’s a problem, it’s that the play is all flow, no stay. You could say that’s a drawback for communication-age media in general. And that’s probably how things were in real life for Strayed — but the play risks seeming scattered. Krause holds it together, making us care for Strayed and her growing community. But I sensed little build.
Toward the end, however, play and production discover what they have wanted to be all along. The show lingers on one voice, allowing it to dive deep into darkness. Here is where Davis steps forward to show why he’s been hoovering up awards all over the place. He doesn’t just hold — he reaches.
It’s a wrenching, shattering performance. It’s a big, beautiful, transcendent wrap to Tiny Beautiful Things.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Through Dec. 8 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St.