Where: Victory Gardens
Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Oct. 13
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I don’t know if people read advice columns to empathize with other people’s problems or to feel better about their own. I also wonder if the writers of those columns genuinely want to help or if they’re more interested in demonstrating to their hopefully admiring audiences who – and how wise – they are. Or all of the above.
These probably aren’t the thoughts that the Chicago premiere of “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Victory Gardens Theater is meant to inspire. The play is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, a collection of her columns as the anonymous advice columnist Sugar for the online literary magazine, “The Rumpus,” between 2010 and 2012. Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos and adapted for the stage by Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), it is an 80-minute love fest of life lessons we’re supposed to take to heart.
Here they’re dispensed by Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sugar (Vardalos starred in New York) under the direction of Vanessa Stalling (“Photograph 51” at Court Theatre), and the evening begins with her agreeing to take over the unpaid position from her predecessor after struggling to write something of her own. The format is Q & A with three actors—August Forman, Eric Slater, and Jessica Dean Turner—as all the letter writers. There’s barely any physical contact between them and Sugar or each other, but Stalling keeps them moving around the stage to maintain visual interest.
Unlike in New York, where the setting was Strayed’s messy home, the action takes place in a coffee house designed by Courtney O’Neill in soothing shades of blue-green that remind me of doctors’ scrubs. The lighting by Rachel K. Levy reflects the changing moods. There’s an air of unreality, or perhaps an attempt at tonal unity, exacerbated by the fact that Theresa Ham’s costumes all have burnt sienna elements.
The pace, well-modulated by Stalling, alternates between short questions and answers on topics like romantic relationships, parenting, and other predictable problems to longer segments, starting with Sugar’s thoughts on the meaning of love, which inform practically all of her responses. Despite a certain amount of humor, serious concerns dominate, among them the debilitating depression of a woman who has had a miscarriage (Turner) and the gut-wrenching grief of a man whose only son was killed by a drunk driver (Slater).
Brooks’ Sugar, simultaneously tough and vulnerable, epitomizes empathy, and her compassionate approach emphasizes embracing life’s contradictions, making connections, pushing past the pain, and forgiving oneself as well as others. She frequently draws on her own experiences to get her message across, so we learn as much—or more—about her as about the correspondents. These revelations range from her failed first marriage to a bout of heroin addiction, from childhood incest to endless sorrow over the loss of her mother.
While parts of “Tiny Beautiful Things” are moving, I also felt manipulated. Too much is designed to push emotional buttons and, at the same time, being party to sufferers’ confessions bears an uncomfortable resemblance to voyeurism. Sugar’s responses, too, started to bother me as a bit preachy or smug.
On the other hand, fans of advice columns will probably enjoy seeing one brought to life, and Brooks and her fellow actors keep it engaging. The anecdote I like best touchingly illustrates Sugar’s belief that we can’t know in advance the significance little things will come to have in our lives. It’s about a child’s red-velvet dress that catches her eye and her mother buys for her at a yard sale.