Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ moves from page to stage

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 2021

Advice columns have long been a pop-culture staple, from the levelheaded observations of Pauline “Dear Abby” Phillips to the edgy musings of Candace “Sex and the City” Bushnell.

Positioned somewhere in the middle is Cheryl Strayed, who is best known for the bestselling memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (which inspired a film starring Reese Witherspoon). Much like Phillips, Strayed adopted an alter ego and penned a column called “Dear Sugar” for the online magazine the Rumpus. Strayed’s empathetic and insightful responses to readers were compiled into the book “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

That manual for coping with life is the basis for a play of the same name, written by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and running through Aug. 8 in a Max & Louie production. Strayed is played by Michelle Hand in the show directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga.

Recently, Strayed said that the play, which opened in 2016 off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theater with Vardalos in the role of Sugar, has been staged quite often.

“In 2019, it was listed in the top 10 most produced plays in the nation,” she says. “I’ve seen maybe six or seven productions, and it’s been a thrill.” It’s the first of her nonfiction works to be adapted for the stage.

The play has its origins in part to an email that Strayed received from director Thomas Kail, who is best known for helming the game-changing Broadway hit “Hamilton.” Kail wrote that he loved the book and thought the material would work well onstage, Strayed says.

And it turned out that Kail wasn’t alone in spotting the theatrical potential of “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

“One day, I noticed that Nia Vardalos had commented on something that I posted on Facebook,” Strayed says. “Soon enough, we were messaging back and forth, and she said that (Kail) had given her the book, and they were both interested in collaborating on bringing it to the stage.”

That involved transforming the wide-ranging columns into a cohesive and compelling dramatic work.

“As the author of the book,” Strayed says, “I had to trust that Nia would make good decisions — and she did. She had to craft a narrative arc out of the columns. What that meant was, inevitably, not all of the columns could be included. Not even the most popular.”

Nonetheless, the New York Times praised “Tiny Beautiful Things” as a “handkerchief-soaking meditation on pain, loss, hope and forgiveness” that “turns out to be about the endangered art of listening to — and really hearing and responding to — other people.”

Strayed says she was well aware that “Tiny Beautiful Things” benefitted from attracting the attention and enthusiasm of top dramatic artists.

“I got really lucky, right out of the gate,” she says. “And that’s one of the great pleasures of my professional life. Maybe that’s because I’ve taken my own advice: Trust your gut.”