Dear Abby she’s not. When best-selling novelist and “Wild” memoirist Cheryl Strayed took on the anonymous online advice column “Dear Sugar,” she brought her writerly sensibility and many contradictions to the task — as well as a willingness to share her own messy personal life with readers.
That radical candor is on full display in “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a 90-minute adaptation of Strayed’s collected advice columns that re-opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater in New York. (The show had a brief, sold-out run last fall at the Public’s smallest performance space.)
Nia Vardalos, best known for writing and starring in the indie hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” performs the same duties here. She brings a forthright sensibility to the role of Strayed, who wanders about a cluttered home (designed by Rachel Hauck) and speaks directly to advice-seekers (played alternately by Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Natalie Woolams-Torres).
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And she shows even more restraint in adapting the material, letting Strayed’s own lyricism and storytelling speak for itself. (Vardalos conceived the project along with Marshall Heyman and “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, who assumes that role on this production as well.)
Fans of Strayed are legion, particularly after her memoir of addiction-and-recovery “Wild” became a best-seller and then an Oscar-nominated showcase for Reese Witherspoon.
And it’s easy to see the appeal — her advice can seem both homespun and hard-won after a life marred by abuse and struggle, and she’s given to sharing personal anecdotes in a way that’s part Biblical parable, part Moth Radio Hour.
Her responses can also at times seem contradictory. “Your advice is all over the place,” one letter-writer complains on stage. Characteristically, she accepts the criticism … and moves on.
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Vardalos’ Strayed never seems to lose sight of the capacity of human resilience, even in the face of horrific situations shared by her correspondents — rape, rejection by parents, the killing of a child by a drunk driver.
She’s also attuned to the possibility of forgiveness — even, perhaps hardest of all, of our own shortcomings. “You have to say I am forgiven over and over until it becomes the story you believe about yourself,” she says.
And that’s a message that resonates, even in the slender form of a theater piece.