If you need an actor to carry your show on her shoulders, might I recommend the talents of one Janet Ulrich Brooks? Last year, she dominated Timeline Theatre’s Master Class as opera star Maria Callas, recounting her career and attempting to impart her wisdom and talent into aspiring performers. That show (which I reviewed here) succeeded on Brooks’ ability to command the stage as a woman who’d built her career on doing just that.
As a new theater season kicks off in Chicago, Brooks is at it again, this time as author Cheryl Strayed (she wrote Wild, which was later adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon) in a stage adaptation of her much-appreciated advice column, “Dear Sugar.” The show, called Tiny Beautiful Things (a reference to one of Strayed’s responses to a reader’s question), is an adaptation of various letters and responses featured in the column, a show conceived by Nia Vardalos and here directed by Vanessa Stalling.
The setting is simple: a nondescript diner in various shades of teal (designed by Courtney O’Neill); the cast is simpler: just Strayed, working diligently at her laptop as the show begins, and three patrons/letter-writers (August Forman, Eric Slater and Jessica Dean Turner) who interact with her for the single-act show’s 80 minutes. The four of them are all on stage the entire time, and they cut quite a contrast to the set in costumes designed (by Theresa Ham) around various shades of coral. Easy on the eyes, there’s a bit of magic to this simplicity, as once we’re at home with the look of it all, we can focus on what’s really important: the words.
Strayed’s style of straight-talking sincerity draws from a deep well of hard-earned honesty and vulnerability; her version of life advice and sisterhood falls into similar space as Elizabeth Gilbert, Glennon Doyle and Brene Brown, women who champion embracing life with bravery and love. Cynics in the audience at Tiny Beautiful Things may find much of what unfolds to be trite life advice, oversimplified to a degree that it loses all meaning. But this is their loss, as the whole point of a show like this one is to be open to it. There’s no plot at all; it’s just the letter writers imploring Strayed for her opinion and input on any number of matters, from the funny and weird to the very serious and sad. At each turn, Strayed does her best to be as transparent and relatable as she can, even as her readers question her qualifications for such a gig.
Of course, her qualifications were earned by living them, and many of her responses tie back to her own experiences with sexual abuse, drug addiction, marriage and divorce, the loss of her mother and more. Each answer provides as much wisdom as it does insight into Strayed herself. Brooks delivers monologue after monologue with mastery, making what could easily be a one-note show into something with texture and movement, at turns very funny and very moving. In the intimate space at Lincoln Park’s Victory Gardens/Biograph Theater, you’ll feel more than once as though she is speaking directly to you.
And perhaps that’s the attraction of a show without a traditional narrative, without a villain or a destination or even much of a reason for being. Somewhere along the way, you’ll hear something that, as she responds to the various, anonymous letter-writers, actually resonates with you directly, a turn of phrase or a line of thought that lingers long after you exit under that historic Lincoln Avenue marquee. I’ll share mine, and after you see the show, I hope you’ll return here to share yours.
“The way to get unstuck isn’t to hold on. It’s to reach.”
Tiny Beautiful Things has been extended through October 20 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are available for performances Wednesday-Sunday.
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