Theater

WTF, WTF, WTF? In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things,’ That Is the Question

by

When I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I sobbed. Not out of empathy — disturbingly, I was jealous of her grief at her mother’s death. My own family relationship has been traumatic; I envied having a parent who was such a positive force that Strayed exploded her entire life (left her husband, shot heroin, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail) because she couldn’t fathom living in a world without her mother in it.

As a media critic I never write memoir, but it’s only fitting to reveal something of myself in reviewing the theatrical version of Tiny Beautiful Things, the book based on Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, because self-revelation is core to her words on the page and the stage. Sugar (Nia Vardalos, who has adapted Strayed’s work with a light, elegant touch) writes not from a traditionally safe distance but “with radical sincerity and open arms,” in homage to her mother’s memory. Audiences experience the breathtaking honesty and wisdom that won the columnist a cultishly devoted readership, watching Strayed search her archive of sorrow, addiction, wit, horror, and growth until she lands on just the right memory to motivate, inspire, or encourage. When to forgive the repentant, when to cut off abusers. How to love, how to leave.

“I don’t attend church, I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Cheryl Strayed,” notes the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in the show’s playbill. If reading Tiny Beautiful Things is for some a spiritual experience, the play — co-conceived by Vardalos, Hamilton director Thomas Kail, and journalist Marshall Heyman — demystifies Strayed’s process, moving briskly and balancing emotional punch with just enough humor to let the material breathe. Kail places Vardalos in an intimate living room outfitted with children’s raincoats, last night’s leftovers, and a happily cluttered kitchen table where she wrestles her prose into a literary-therapeutic hybrid. As letter writers desperate for guidance, actors Alfredo Narciso, Natalie Woolams-Torres, and Phillip James Brannon sit on Sugar’s midcentury couch, lean against her kitchen sink, and reach out for human connection while embodying parades of real people in real need. The woman who steals due to her mother’s abuse. A trans man disowned in his twenties, whose parents beg forgiveness in his thirties. Virgins who long for connection; married spouses who covet freedom. A would-be mom emotionally frozen by her miscarriage. At their core, they all echo this gut-punch from “Living Dead Dad,” who lost his son to a drunk driver: “How do I become human again?”

Fans of Strayed will appreciate Vardalos’s vulnerable yet straightforward performance as she gives voice and dimension to the mini-treatises on fearless living they’ve pored over for years. They’ll also appreciate her adaptation’s hewing closely to the original text, without any superfluous content, conflict, or character development. Mostly, though, they’ll recognize and revel in Sugar’s oft-memed prescriptions: At some point every monogamous partner will “love X but want to fuck Z. Z is so shiny and new….Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Dazzling. Going nowhere.” To reach past suffering, realize that “Acceptance is a small, quiet room.” Playing it safe won’t protect you from romantic hurt, so be “Brave enough to break your own heart. Tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” Sugar’s most famous time-waster, “WTF,” is interpreted perfectly with three smirking repetitions of: “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.” Strayed’s infamous reply — turning a troll’s prompt into an astonishing reflection on childhood sexual abuse — offers both meaning and compassionate ass-kicking, urging WTF (and us, whenever we’re tempted to waste our lives) to “ask better questions. The fuck is your life. Answer it.”

Tiny Beautiful Things

The Public Theater

425 Lafayette Street

212-539-8500, publictheater.org

Through December 31