The letters all began “Dear Sugar” and went on to expose the heartache and resilience that adults experience in their relationships — romantic, platonic and familial.
They were written by an anonymous advice columnist for a web-based literary magazine and are now the focus of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s compelling first production of the 2019-2020 season.
Cheryl Strayed, who was for a time that mystery advice columnist, eventually gathered the letters together and published them as a book. Nia Vardalos has adapted the book for the stage.
Strayed was advice columnist for The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012. In 2012, her acclaimed memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” was published. In June 2012, Oprah Winfrey selected “Wild” as her first pick when she began Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
In “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Strayed answers her readers by sharing her own life, suggesting parallels with their lives. The letters are read as a series of vignettes as Strayed and the writer engage in a dialog. Lori Prince, making her first MRT appearance, gives a strong performance as Strayed.
Prince conveys deep empathy as Strayed hears the letter writers share their trauma and anguish. In one vignette, the writer shares the trauma of his parents’ rejection when they learn he is transsexual. In another, a woman struggles with whether to leave her romantic partner, and in yet another, a father wrestles with sorrow, anger and fear over his son’s death.
Reading the letters are Nael Nacer, who will be familiar to MRT audiences for his roles in “45 Plays for 45 Presidents” and “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” and Shravan Amin and Caroline Strang, both MRT newcomers.
Strayed responds to them with stories about her mother’s death, the end of her first marriage, her dalliance with heroin, and the sexual abuse she endured by her grandfather.
Generally, the performances are engrossing. In one searing vignette, Nacer describes his anguish as the father who has lost his son. The audience was so gripped by the story that the theater was hushed, not even the coughing sounds of seasonal allergies could be heard.
But the existential and profane rage displayed in one scene is off-putting. Playing yet another letter writer, Nacer storms around the stage demanding “what the (expletive)” as both an exclamation and a question. The rant overwhelms the scene. Strayed responds with more of the same. An audience member could reasonably ask, “What was that?”
Despite this, and some uncomfortable moments during the sexual-abuse discussion, the play is a satisfying start to MRT’s new season.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs through Sunday, Oct. 6. Tickets start at $24. Call 978-654-4678 or visit mrt.org.