I think I’d have enjoyed reading Cheryl Strayed’s weekly Dear Sugar columns in the online magazine The Rumpus some years ago, preferably on a Sunday morning, coffee and toast at hand. She’s engaging and sometimes insightful, and she writes well. After the huge success of Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, these Rumpus pieces were collected in a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. They have since been made into a play being given a regional premiere by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.
But it’s hard to transform a group of letters and responses into character, plot and forward movement, and the result is a pretty static stage piece, despite the pleasant, comfortably lived-in living room/kitchen set designed by Tina Anderson and the four terrific actors assembled by director Rebecca Remaly. Central is Diana Dresser, who plays Sugar — that is, Strayed herself. The others are Josh Hartwell, Rodney Lizcano and the touching Simone St. John, all of whom create fascinating cameos as the various letter writers in need of Sugar’s advice. These three can convincingly become male or female; old or young; enraged or grieving, on the instant, and they present every kind of problem, from the profound grief of a miscarriage to jealousy of friends’ successes to abusive fathers to sea sickness.
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Through the play, each letter is expressively read, followed by Sugar’s response. She usually begins with a longish anecdote about herself; sometimes you can see the relevance to the question immediately, at other times this becomes clear only later. Finally, there’s a mini-epiphany, in which she shows the letter writer, usually with genuine compassion, how this personal anecdote applies to his or her situation. Most of the answers are spot on, but I’m not sure I entirely trust Sugar. What kind of person decides the humane thing to do for a stranded baby bird is to smother it?
Some of the problems and answers are interestingly complex, some genuinely moving, and a few — too few –—wonderfully funny. But as the evening progresses, the overriding tone of shared weepiness becomes oppressive. Sugar blinks back her tears or weeps openly. The correspondents cry. The audience sniffles quietly.
To be honest, my two favorite advice columnists are rather more vigorous, and their ways of responding more varied. I’m knocked out by the dark humor of Miss Lonelyhearts in Nathanael West’s depression-era novel of the same name. Miss Lonelyhearts is a cynical New York journalist who takes on his paper’s advice column pretty much as a lark, but finds himself driven to utter madness by the terrible suffering he reads about. The non-fictive Philip Galanes of the New York Times handles social questions rather than psychological ones, things like dealing with a much richer sibling or worrying that someone swimming next to you in the pool may be peeing in the water; he does also tackle difficult family issues. His responses, though sympathetic, are hard-nosed, and he has no compunction about telling a questioner that he’s being selfish or she’s being dumb. None of Sugar’s correspondents is blind or selfish or in any way at fault, and the focus is always on their feelings.
Here’s where cultural differences tend to show up. Americans love to talk about feelings. Most Brits, or at least Brits of my generation, don’t. I’m not saying many of Sugar’s letters weren’t touching. I’m not saying feelings shouldn’t be honored or suffering people helped with nuggets of wisdom — though I do tend to think of the therapist’s office rather than the stage as the place for this. But a solid ninety minutes of people baring their souls and talking mostly about accepting themselves and learning to say no and how sad they are is just too much. Take this exchange, a piece of wisdom for readers troubled by self-loathing that ends the evening and gives the play its name: “You will be riding the bus one hot afternoon and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are. A little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it, because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things.
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By this time people in the audience are no longer trying to restrain their tears. It’s also the moment when, to quote Dorothy Parker, “Tonstant Weader fwowed Up.”