SUGAR'S 'TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS'
Cheryl Strayed, the famous author of "Wild," never set out to tell people what to do when she became the anonymous Sugar, the advice columnist and podcaster.
Humbly in an era of people giving their takes on things, Strayed wanted people to understand through "Dear Sugar" that she didn't have all the answers, but would help them work through things.
"I tell people what I think they should do, but not in any kind of way where I know it all," Strayed, a Portland resident, says. "I've found over and over the dynamic where we seek truth in others, but we have the truth within ourselves and we need others to show us. 'Here's what you know, and you don't have to be afraid.'"
Taking over the column from Steve Almond, she wrote "Dear Sugar" for TheRumpus.net starting in 2010, and then an advice column for the New York Times, while also doing the podcast (with Almond) by the same name and later taking on the book and movie "Wild." She has left the advice business to pursue other interests, including the formation of "Tiny Beautiful Things," a book of advice columns and then an adapted play about her time as the columnist/podcaster.
It's a play originally staged in New York by star/co-creator Nia Vardalos, and touring the country, and it's now a Portland Center Stage play that will appear at The Armory Feb. 23-March 31, starring Dana Green as Sugar. Eventually, Strayed confirms, "Tiny Beautiful Things" could end up as a series on television.
Even with the 2012 book "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" and the subsequent movie with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern achieving such success — Oscar nominations for both — it's still a thrill for Strayed, 50, to watch her writing turn into stage performance.
"It's an amazing cast and hometown production," says Strayed, who lives in Irvington with husband Brian Lindstrom, a filmmaker, and their two teenagers. "The set is essentially my Southeast Portland home. I almost always write columns when the kids went to bed, and the play captures that."
Green plays Strayed/Sugar, and Leif Norby, Lisa Renee Pitts and Brian Michael Smith play letter writers. Letters and Sugar's responses are read as part of the story and dialogue. Rose Riordan directs.
"I'm so thrilled that Dana's in the role, she's such an extraordinary actress and just a wonderful woman," Strayed says. "She has a wonderfully warm quality; it's that instant reaction when you know somebody is a kindred spirit.
"There is that interesting experience for actors who play you. Nia forged the trail, and Dana has big shoes to fill. I'm honored, thrilled and ecstatic."
"It's a big honor and a big undertaking," says Green, a veteran of PCS productions. "I read 'Wild' when I first moved to Portland, right before the movie came out (in 2014), and I loved it. It moved me like it did so many other people.
"I hadn't read 'Tiny Beautiful Things,' but I was familiar with the 'Dear Sugar' podcast. I finally listened to the audio book of 'Tiny Beautiful Things' — I have a toddler, reading things in print is difficult — and it was to hear her read her own words. It was a valuable resource to immerse myself in her, her words and her delivery. I was blown away at the book. It's really moving. Moved to tears, sometimes laughter, moved in almost every single letter, and responses."
Green and Strayed met on the first day of stage rehearsals, and "she was so warm and generous," Green says.
To see her life more fully broken down in "Tiny Beautiful Things" is a bit of "a strange experience" and "very surreal" for Strayed, a native of Minnesota who moved to Oregon after her Pacific Crest Trail hike in 1995. She was originally a fiction writer, but she also wrote personal essays in which vulnerability set in — "This is actually me and my experience."
"We all fear that we'll show our true selves, and they'll condemn us or reject us," she says. "But you find out that to be honest and vulnerable is the clearest and straightest way to find connection with somebody else.
"Readers almost always say, 'That's me, too.' It's strange to be so open, and have your life an open book, but it's incredibly beautiful on another hand. People feel connected to me. That's always a good feeling; 'You told me the truth, and gave me the courage to tell the truth, too.'"
Although she hopes to write fiction again someday, Strayed has been working on a third memoir about different parts of her life, contrasting being a child and a mother now, and about people and places that shaped her.
In the way that "Wild" was about her self-awareness and physical journey inspired by her late mother, her next memoir would be about ordinary life.
"That's the beauty of life: There's always a story," she says.
Strayed says she would love to go on another long hike — she went 1,100 of the 2,630 Pacific Crest miles in 1995, finishing at the Bridge of the Gods — but she spends too much time writing.
It was an experience that produced the book and movie, and made her famous.
"I will never take for granted all the amazing and wonderful things that have happened to me in my career," she says.
"I grew up in poverty with a single mom, didn't have a life of economic privilege at all. I dreamed my whole life of being a writer. Ultimately, in my 20s and 30s, I was toiling away. 'Wild' came out and was met with such success, 'Wow, thank you, universe.'"
A year ago, in fact, she played a role in "The Vagina Monologues" at Portland Community College. Yes, she acted. "That was fun and terrifying and made me convinced that I'm not an actor. Thankfully I got to read (cue cards) and I didn't have to memorize lines."
She can appreciate professional actors such as Green, who can memorize, retain and then express words on stage.
As for playing Strayed/Sugar, "it's an honor to get to channel her words," Green says.
"Tiny Beautiful Things" begins with previews Feb. 23 at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.; the regular run begins March 1. For tickets ($25-$82) and more, see www.pcs.org.