Advice columns started showing up in newspapers in the late 19th century. Dealing mostly with household tricks, the columns were primarily targeted toward women. But, the advice column has changed.
Marie Manning, the woman behind Dear Beatrice Fairfax, is regarded as the first true advice columnist as we know them today—dealing with family, social, and relationship issues. There are still daily prints of Dear Abby and Ask Amy appearing in newspapers across the country, but there are also digital advice gurus willing to dish advice out at any time. There’s Anna Farris is Unqualified (a podcast), Ask a Queer Chick (published on online news sites), and Ask Dr. NerdLove (column and podcast).
And then there’s Dear Sugar, the online advice column at the center of Tiny Beautiful Things. Cheryl Strayed, the writer of the real-life Dear Sugar, wrote a memoir chronicling her time listening to the problems and anxieties of thousands of strangers. Her book was adapted for the stage, and it was performed this week at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
In addition to Sugar (Lore Prince), Nael Nacer, Caroline Strang, and Shravin Amin evolve as new characters who write in to the advice column throughout the duration of the play. The people who write in are diverse, both in identity and in struggle. One asks when he has to say “I love you” in a relationship. Another asks about overcoming a sexual assault.
The problems that are submitted range from the serious—alcoholism, abuse, trauma—to the not-so-serious, like the man who wants to know if he should indulge his girlfriend’s fantasies about Santa Claus. (Sugar’s advice? Stuff her stocking like only Santa knows how.)
There are moments of profundity when Sugar reads a request that stirs something inside of her, bringing her to tears or to some moment of realization. These quick outbursts of emotion sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, reaching a climax before they’ve gained any build up.
Certainly, the play must work to include a universality of issues within which most people can find something they relate to. The play is supposed to be common to us. The set is of a wildly average middle-class home, complete with an armchair, washing machine, and island in the kitchen. Sugar is a woman who doesn’t have time for the column but she takes it anyway, using it as a lense to look back on her own life.
One man always writes in with one question: “What the fuck? Best, WTF” He repeats it over again, escalating in confusion and rage, but saying nothing more. He gets quite a few laughs from the audience, but Sugar gets tired of it. “The fuck is your life,” she tells him, shaming him for asking a useless, self-pitying question.
In Sugar’s deepest answer—one in which no ounce of emotion felt forced—she advises a father who is grieving for his son. He writes to her a numbered list of how he is feeling, how no one understands him, and how no one can tell that he feels the way he does. When Sugar gets up to number 18 in her response to him, she tells him that people never really know what to say but we go on anyway.
Does Sugar know what to say? Or is she just another person trying to grasp at what seems to be the best thing? It could be that the only thing that mattered was that she existed in the first place, regardless of what she sent back.
To the people who were dedicated in sending their letters and reading Sugar’s reply, Sugar has one piece of advice that can be applied to any of them. Despite what they’re struggling with, what has driven them to write to a complete and total stranger, they all deserve the tiny beautiful things that they are able to be witness.
The play feels familiar—it doesn’t break any boundaries or talk about anything we haven’t heard before. But it does remind us of the commonality everyone shares. As one woman walked out of the theater, she said to her friend that she was going to tell her sister, her colleague, and her pastor to go see it.
Featured Image by Meg Moore / Merrimack Repertory Theatre