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THEATER REVIEW Tiny Beautiful Things
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-09-18

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Playwright: Adapted by Nia Vardalos

from the book by Cheryl Strayed. At: Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: VictoryGardens.org 773-871-3000; $31-$65. Runs through: Oct. 20

Once upon a time, there was an online publication called Rumpus. Its table of contents included an advice column, where readers could address queries pertaining to the literary topics constituting the magazine's focus, and have them answered by a curator identified only as "Sugar"—but in 2010, Sugar's pseudonymous voice underwent an abrupt change, as did the scope of her mission.

These events are not the story told in Nia Vardalos' play, however, but are simply a framing device. Audiences arriving at Victory Gardens anticipating discussions of epistolary journalism in the publishing sphere are hereby warned.

The new real-life Sugar, you see, was Cheryl Strayed, a real-life writer whose first-person account of her spiritual recovery from childhood trauma ( sexual abuse, drug addiction, the untimely death of a beloved parent ) arising from a retreat to nature had brought her recognition, honors and a cult following. When offered the stewardship of Sugar's domain, despite her absence of pedagogical expertise, Strayed nevertheless ventured forth into likewise unexplored territory. Predictably, the e-letters initially piquing her empathy were those revolving on domestic issues similar to her own—and, having found her genre in Confessional Memoirs, it was logical for her to use her own experiences as a launching point for her responses to others' cries for guidance.

There's nothing wrong with this approach to instruction, nor in adopting a larger-than-life persona for the dispensation thereof ( cf. Helen Gurley Brown, Dan Savage ), since the subsequent compilation of Strayed's precepts into a single volume allowed readers ample contemplation time to distill wisdom from homilies conveying solace and comfort, but few concrete directives. Repackaged within the abbreviated duration dictated by modern theater practice—80 minutes, in this case— Sugar's petitioners are reduced to foils for their healer's personal anecdotes, rendered nominally empathetic by the flimsiest of epilogues.

A muscular ensemble led by Janet Ulrich Brooks as a curiously understated Strayed, also featuring Eric Slater, Jessica Dean Turner and the always-watchable August Forman playing numerous correspondents, strive to sustain momentum sufficient to suggest progress in a flattened narrative arc inevitably skewing toward repetition, while director Vanessa Stalling struggles to impose mobility on a stage picture composed of flat-pack coffee shop decor and quasi-meditative bridging music. If you're already a Strayed fan, none of these shortcomings are likely to disturb you, but playgoers of drier temperament may want to look elsewhere for counsel.


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