Director hopes viewers take healing, wisdom and compassion away from production that runs through Oct. 12
By Kalene McCourt, Boulder Daily Camera (Read the original.)
Many know author Cheryl Strayed from her praised books “Wild,” “Torch” and “Brave Enough.” She’s a favorite of Oprah, Elizabeth Gilbert and Reese Witherspoon. But before the Pennsylvania-born wordsmith and podcast host graced the New York Times Best Seller list, she was “Sugar,” — an online advice columnist that dispersed knowledge to real folks who craved a whole lot of guidance.
Strayed’s 2012 book “Tiny Beautiful Things,” that chronicles her time dishing out wisdom and insight to anonymous letter-writers with a collection of actual columns, has been brought to life in a stage play, performed by members of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, and opened at Dairy Art Center’s Grace Gamm Theater Thursday. Adapted by the talented Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the play gives an insightful glimpse into both the immense hardships and joyful shimmers of the human condition.
“The power of theater, more than any other art form, can foster and strengthen empathy,” said Rebecca Remaly, director of BETC’s “Tiny Beautiful Things.” “Directing this play gets at the heart of why I do what I do. I am grateful to the play and to the process for that. It feels like what we are preparing to present to people is what so many of us really need right now.”
Both incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking, Remaly sees the production as a chance for attendees to find moments that deeply resonate with them — and also help them to step into someone else’s shoes, shedding preconceived notions and seeing the other side.
“I’ve played other real, non-fictional people, but mostly with a certain amount of historical distance,” said Diana Dresser, who portrays Sugar/Cheryl in the play. “Cheryl is a vivid, evolving human with a highly active presence in the world, so I felt like it would be futile to try to ‘be’ Cheryl. She isn’t preserved in amber. I love listening to her voice and reading her words — every part of her that I’ve encountered has made me wish that I could hang out with her and listen to her stories and soak up her wisdom.”
Not a fan of mimicking, Dresser doesn’t attempt to copy the mannerisms of Strayed, rather she tunes into the author’s heart, original outlook and voice.
“She writes in that way where you pick up her book in a bookstore, and you miss all of your appointments and forget to walk the dog because you’re still standing in the bookstore two hours later, riveted” Dresser said. “Cheryl Strayed, Pam Houston, Roxane Gay, Elizabeth Gilbert, Zadie Smith, Caitlin Moran — thank God for these women, saying the things that need to be said and saying them so artfully and with brutal honesty.”
Audiences get to hear raw real-life letters and marvel at how Strayed responds back — openly discussing her own demons, in order to evoke trust with the person at the other end of the keyboard.
“I’d also listened to the ‘Dear Sugar’ podcast years ago and loved it — and now that’s my go-to on my long car drives to Boulder,” Dresser said. “There’s always something you need to hear, even if you think that day’s letter has nothing to do with you.”
The set of “Tiny Beautiful Things” is exceptionally dressed and detailed — crafted to look like a fully-realized house, complete with kitchen, muffin trays, stairs leading to an upper level and even the occasional house plant. This authentic image of home is surrounded by mountains composed of fabric — a homage to Strayed’s books that focus on the outdoorsy adventurer, her love of the Pacific Northwest and a metaphorical nod to the concept of conquering insurmountable peaks.
While themes of alcoholism, drug addiction, child abuse, divorce, miscarriages and death surface in this captivating production, bits of levity can also be found.
“Some of the letters are straight-up funny,” Remaly said. “Like life, so much of the humor comes with the drama.”
While Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern lit up the silver screen in the movie “Wild,” based on Strayed’s solo journey across the Pacific Crest Trail following the death of her mother, this is the first time one of Strayed’s literary offerings has been spotlighted and seen in real time. Stage productions of “Tiny Beautiful Things” are being performed in close to 20 cities across the country — giving fans of Strayed an offering of her work explored through a whole different vehicle.
“It’s a new medium for the words and for the stories. I respect and honor that and try to bring a full sense of truth.” Remaly said. “It’s a wonderful and unique format that explores how Cheryl becomes ‘Sugar’ and how she navigates that.”
While some of the letters have been edited, combined and slices of new material added in, the overall feel of Strayed’s book remains intact — providing emotional depth and relatability.
“It’s about exploring empathy, human connection, the power of our relationships, the power of own egos and how we get through this thing called life,” Remaly said.
Remaly hopes the seamless production and its powerful message of compassion will stay with audience members long after the curtains close.
“I hope that they call their mom, or their kid or their estranged friend,” Remaly said. “ I hope that they are inspired to tell someone something about themselves that they have never felt before. I hope they ditch that relationship that may be toxic to them. Most of all, I hope they get healing from it.”