When life seemed to be disintegrating in every conceivable way and my emotional antenna were fried from loss overload, a friend recommended Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 book “Tiny Beautiful Things,” likening it to a beacon of sanity in maddening darkness. Soon enough, I became attuned to a virtual underground network of readers who’d bonded over the hilarious, heartbreaking “Dear Sugar” advice columns collected in Strayed’s book — about sexless marriages, modern dating etiquette, miscarriages, independence, faith, writing, death, abusive relatives, and much more, advice she’d dished out for the Rumpus website from 2009 through 2012 and expanded with new material in “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
That community loomed large in the conscience of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” writer-actress Nia Vardalos while adapting Strayed’s work into an ensemble piece for the stage, after director friend Thomas Kail suggested “Tiny Beautiful Things” could be raw material for a play. It was 2013; Vardalos was promoting her book “Instant Mom,” and Kail was still in rehearsals for “Hamilton.” Reading Sugar’s “epistolary exchanges” during a flight from New York to her Los Angeles home, Vardalos says she knew by the time she landed that she needed to adapt it.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” the play, co-conceived by Vardalos, Vail and Marshall Heyman, premiered in 2017 at the Public Theater in New York. The Pasadena Playhouse’s production, directed by Sherri Eden Barber from Kail’s original direction, opens this week.
Sugar leaps off the page (or computer screen) like a big sister or mentor who knocks you sideways with her compassionate, don’t-bullshit-me wisdom. From the book:
I’m getting married in a few months. Why do I feel totally aggressive and angry?”
My guess is you’re the bride and that you feel aggressive and angry because you’re in wedding planning hell and you’re caught up in all the expectations, outdated fairy tales, overpriced products, and irrational beliefs that one adheres to when one believes it possible to flawlessly orchestrate the behaviors, conversations, drinking habits, and attire of a large group of in-laws, out-laws, friends, strangers, and co-workers while simultaneously having a meaningful and intimate exchange with your sweetheart in front of an audience. It is not.
“I was so drawn to it,” Vardalos says. “The material terrifies me; it’s very much outside my comfort zone. Cheryl talks about subjects that are painful. I didn’t necessarily go into that darkness willingly. I just realized I had to be a grownup and try something different, and I’m so happy I did. It changed me, in ALL ways. It made me seek honesty in my friendships, in every aspect of my life.”
For Vardalos, the challenge was to preserve the “humanity” of the letter writers and the tart lucidity of Strayed’s prose — the healing laughter as well as the tears — while constructing a narrative arc; she says she kept telling herself to just “woman up and do it” and not be scared of offending the beloved Sugar’s readership. After connecting via Twitter, she and Strayed met in LA after Strayed arrived from Portland to view the first cut of Reese Witherspoon’s film version of her 2012 bestseller “Wild.”
“We met, shook hands over tea, hugged, and made a deal. Made a deal!” Vardalos marvels. “And I started writing that day. When I finally met Reese Witherspoon about a year later, after I went to the ‘Wild’ premiere, I said, ‘Thank you so much for treating Cheryl so well, because if you had been a Hollywood asshole, she might not have come to tea with me.’”
Vardalos says she not only connected with Strayed as a fellow writer, but also as “a woman, a mom, a person from Minneapolis and I’m from Winnipeg — sister cities. We are very much sympatico. She’s that person who just makes you feel — I call her blonde Oprah.”
Strayed jokes that Vardalos told her adapting the book was “the meanest thing she’s ever done because she had to say no to all these columns that she loved. But I get it. I don’t think it would have been a good idea to have the play be just like Sugar’s greatest hits. It’s not an album compilation.”
During preproduction and filming of her film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” Vardalos flew back and forth to New York to revise and workshop the play. She “combined, cut, trimmed, added” and conflated passages and themes from approximately 15 “Dear Sugar” letters, “added narrative, wrote within Cheryl’s writing, and arced a story that takes place in one night. Three actors play all the letter writers, so approximately 80 characters.”
She also peppered Strayed with questions: “When did you write? Where did you write? Why did you write? Why did you reveal the sexual abuse in your past? How did that feel?”
“I wanted to know if she was writing anonymously because she found it was freeing, and she said no, writing anonymously was never a draw for her. She was trying to see if the words could be read without any subjectification from the reader, without any prior knowledge of who was writing; the words could just be read as a healing balm or salve,” Vardalos recalls. “That was illuminating because I realized, that’s my way into the play.”
Having never written or even read many advice columns, “Dear Sugar” was “an experiment of form” for Strayed because she discarded the tradition of columnist as morally superior authority. Instead, she explains, she basically said to readers, “I’m down here with you and I’m going to use story to help illuminate your problems and I’m going to tell stories from my life,” making the column an advice-memoir-personal essay hybrid.
“As a reader, books and stories and poems and essays and plays and all those literary forms have saved me, brought me out of a dark time, given me clarity, or hope when I needed it. So I know the power of story,” says Strayed, who wrapped her “Dear Sugars” podcast with Steve Almond in December, along with their “Sweet Spot” column for The New York Times, to work on individual projects (including a memoir Strayed says will be followed by a novel).
“I’ve had all the rejection and all the hardships that every writer has, but I’ve also had a lot of wonderful things happen to me over the last seven years, and exciting things like going to the Oscars. But nothing, nothing, nothing compares to this experience I’ve had of meeting, at this point now, hundreds of thousands of people who’ve looked into my eyes and said, ‘Thank you, you changed my life’ [with ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ and ‘Wild’]. That is the high mark for me when it comes to achievement. That’s what I dreamed of doing as a writer. Sometimes, sadly, people think of the arts as useless — like, ‘Oh, I could be a doctor, saving lives’ — but what I’ve really come to believe is artists are saving lives, we just do it in a different way.”
Vardalos says she and Kail were keen to extend that connection with Sugar’s readers: “When the book was published, people shared it; on the Rumpus, a community shared. So our goal, our absolute goal, was to create an experience where people could sit in the dark and go through something together. When the show kept selling out, and people would come back with friends who had not seen it, that’s when I realized that the goal had been achieved.”
She says they were additionally excited to realize that all of the letter writer roles were non-gender specific, enabling them to expand the play’s dimensions by casting “disregarding ethnicity, age, sexual orientation,” as Kail did with “Hamilton.’” At least 20 other productions have licensed the play across the United States, with actors of varying ethnicities portraying Sugar, and it’s being translated into Spanish for productions in Mexico and Uruguay. Vardalos is appearing in only the Pasadena Playhouse’s production, so she can stay close to home with her daughter. (Due to scheduling conflicts, she will NOT give matinee performances April 13, 20-21, 27-28, May 4 or 5; Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris will portray Sugar for matinees and May 5’s evening performance.)
But Vardalos is savoring the opportunity that “Tiny Beautiful Things” presented for her to “create a role that could go on and on and on,” and to actively address “the dearth of material for women 40 and up.”
“In my ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’ it was the joy of my life to make 72-year-old Lainie Kazan the lead of the film,” she says with a hearty laugh. “Why not? I am constantly trying to create 1) ensemble pieces, and 2) [roles] for women where we’re not just mothers and maids and prostitutes. We can be all those things, and we’re good at all of it, but let’s be something else.”
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs through May 5 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; $25. Info: (626) 356-7529. Pasadenaplayhouse.org