Tiny Beautiful Things

Newspaper Review

By Calvin Wilson – St. Louis Post Dispatch, August 2, 2021

Max & Louie’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ is a warm hug

Some people are huggers. Public displays of affection don’t embarrass them, and a warm embrace is to be cherished. But for others, a handshake is more than adequate to indicate goodwill — and even that courtesy might be extended only reluctantly.

“Tiny Beautiful Things,” the comedy-drama running through Aug. 8 in a Max & Louie production, is definitely for huggers. Based on a book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”) and adapted by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), this offbeat tale of an advice columnist and her readers is part laughfest, part tearjerker and thoroughly engaging.

Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, it’s a richly theatrical piece that addresses themes of loneliness, alienation and despair with an indisputably American spunkiness. If the play sometimes comes dismayingly close to being maudlin, it’s also fearless in its willingness to address sensitive topics.

Michelle Hand stars as a writer who takes over the “Dear Sugar” column on a whim, only to realize that her words hold considerable sway over the emotional lives of strangers. That’s a huge responsibility, as she’s constantly reminded by letter writers (played by Greg Johnston, Wendy Renée Greenwood and Abraham Shaw) who are curious about her qualifications and true identity.

Indeed, being Sugar means grappling with the insecurities of readers stuck in bad marriages, troubled by unfortunate decisions or simply feeling confused and defeated. It also means reacquainting herself with the darker aspects of her own family history.

Ronga elicits terrific performances from the cast, which functions seamlessly as an ensemble. Johnston, Greenwood and Shaw persuasively take on a wide range of personas along with the appropriate vocal and physical mannerisms.

Still, “Tiny Beautiful Things” probably wouldn’t work quite as well without Hand, who has been brilliant in productions ranging from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ “Pride and Prejudice” to the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Breeches!,” and whose everywoman quality goes a long way toward rendering Sugar relatable. Her plainspoken charm also guards against Vardalos’ tendency toward sentimentality.

Scenic designer Dunsi Dai, lighting designer Patrick Huber, sound designer Phillip Evans and costume designer Eileen Engel lend the production a sleekly contemporary feel. And the jazz soundtrack including selections from Miles Davis’ classic “Kind of Blue” album is just right.

Occasionally the play loses focus, and even at 80 minutes without intermission seems just a bit too long. Perhaps that was unavoidable; it’s more of a series of vignettes than a story with a beginning, middle and end, and as a result there’s a certain lack of tension.

Instead, what we anticipate is characters unburdening themselves — either with a burst of humor or a hint of melancholy. To the extent that “Tiny Beautiful Things” has an arc, it’s that Sugar comes to understand her role in their lives.

And the play’s message — that empathy is an essential part of what makes us human — couldn’t be timelier.