The 'Tiny Beautiful Things' Play Made Me Think About Cheryl Strayed's Book In A Whole New Way

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Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things is one of my favorite books of all time. So when I found out that The Public Theater in Manhattan was staging a play adaptation of the book starring Nia Vardalos, I was equal parts excited and intrigued. To be honest, I wasn't sure how Strayed's book — a collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns — would translate to the stage. Would it focus on Strayed's life as she wrote the columns? Would it choose one or more columns to focus on, casting actors to play the parts of whomever had asked for advice? As it turns out, it's a little bit of both.

The play centers both on Strayed (the anonymous writer of the Dear Sugar column) as she putters around her living room, writing her columns at night as her family sleeps, and three anonymous people who have written to Sugar in search of advice.

There are the laugh-out-loud advice columns, from the man who wants to indulge his girlfriend's Santa Claus fantasies by dressing up as the jolly fat man in bed, and the man whose three-night-stand inexplicably donned a wig to break things off with him. Then there are the gut-wrenching advice columns, like the one from the woman who lost her daughter in utero and developed an eating disorder afterward, or the man whose 22 year-old son died in a car accident. All of these stories are interwoven with Strayed's own life experiences — from losing her mother at a young age and being abandoned by her abusive father to drug addiction, divorce, and childhood sexual abuse. It's a mix of heavy and light, funny and sad, but it's all undeniably, utterly human.

And while the columns in the play are taken verbatim from the book, my experience of hearing them read aloud, watching them performed, was in many ways at odds with the experience I had while reading the book.

The Public Theater/Teddy Cañez, Nia Vardalos and Natalie Woolams-Torres. Photo by Joan Marcus

I first read Tiny Beautiful Things back in 2012, when I was 23-years-old. I haven't read it cover to cover since then, but I've returned to my favorite columns over and over again. Re-reading it is always a profoundly personal experience, because I am able to revisit all the passages I'd highlighted the first time around — the pieces of advice about body image, building a career, struggling to find lasting romance, or dealing with difficult parents that had resonated with me so strongly when I'd first picked up the book.  

But that's why revisiting the book as a staged production was even more enlightening. The stage is very much a shared experience. There is no skimming. There is no ignoring the advice or stories you don't want to hear, unless you literally plug your ears and shut your eyes against it. The many actors on the stage, the ushers who lead us to our seats, the strangers sitting next to us, coughing and shifting, breathing our air.... seeing Tiny Beautiful Things performed brought the community aspect of the book to stark light. Because Strayed and the people whose questions she's answered? They have experienced tragedies that I will never know; they have experienced tragedies that I may, unfortunately, someday know. They have also experienced joys and successes that I will know and will never know.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love And Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, $9, Amazon

But somewhere between the knowing and the not knowing, the being able to relate and not being able to relate, are the profound wisdoms of Strayed and her columns. This play made the known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns (to quote Strayed quoting Donald Rumsfeld) in my own life undeniable. It said to me, "You do not know and for that you are blessed; you might someday know and that is a sorrow you will have to and can endure. You do not know and that is a sorrow you will have to and can endure; you might someday know and for that you are blessed." That is a lesson I needed to learn, a truth I needed to hear.

Because the true beauty of Dear Sugar is not only what we already know, but in what we don't. In the people we think we cannot relate to, but can. Whether we are sad to see ourselves reflected here, or joyful, or validated. The wonder of Tiny Beautiful Things is that you will find who you are in these columns — read or performed. And you will also discover who you are not. Somewhere in these pages, on this stage, through the exploration of all the monstrous, beautiful, unfathomably dark things and unendingly light things, you might just discover what makes us human.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, $9, Amazon