The culture of therapy provides the framework for Tiny Beautiful Things, a moving but unconventional play that marks the return to live performance after a year-and-a-half COVID break at Oregon Contemporary Theatre.
When the lights come up, Sugar (Tracy Nygard), a freelance writer, is conned into taking over an online advice column called “Dear Sugar.” The job offers no pay, despite the whirlwind of broken lives that end up pouring into her laptop’s inbox seeking help.
Sugar quickly gets to know such people as WTF, who poses that existential eponymous question in place of properly grieving his son, killed in a collision. She deals with lusts and dissatisfactions of middle-aged marriages, the problems of addiction, the challenges of grief and the difficulty of forgiveness.
The play, which premiered at The Public Theatre in New York in 2016, was adapted by Nia Vardalos (the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) from a series of essays in a 2012 book by Cheryl Strayed, who in real life anonymously wrote just such an online advice column for a couple years for The Rumpus. Strayed is perhaps best known for Wild, her 2012 account of hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, later a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
In a brilliant stroke by Vardalos, Sugar’s highly engaged readers are depicted in the play by an ensemble of three actors. In OCT’s production, directed by Inga Wilson, actors Eric Braman, Chelsey Megli and Patrick Dizney engage in high-energy discussion with Sugar that keeps the play moving despite its lack of a strong story arc. Dizney, in particular, brings a Spencer Tracy-like gravitas to the pain and sorrow of WTF and other readers seeking help.
In the play, as Strayed did in the real world, Sugar brings her own life to bear on the advice she dispenses to readers. Along the way we learn that her mother died of cancer at the age of 45, that Sugar has had her own problems with heroin and meth and has had plenty of familiar romantic problems.
Ultimately, her readers are able to piece together her biography, and begin demanding her name. What might be the weakest point in the script is when Sugar at last comes clean, and announces, as though this were of great moment, that she is Cheryl Strayed.
Tiny Beautiful Things is quick and clever and occasionally wise, in a self-help kind of way. While it lacks much shape as a story — you have to wonder what Sugar learns from revealing her true identity — the letters Sugar is called on to answer are powerful even as static pieces. I’m certain there were some tears in the audience behind all those pandemic masks. ν
Tiny Beautiful Things runs Thursdays through Sundays at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway, through Nov. 28. The show includes rough language and mature themes. Tickets are $20 to $44 at OCTheatre.org.