Tiny Beautiful Things

Website Review

By Gerry Kowarsky – HEC Media, August 5, 2021

The stage adaptation of Tiny Beautiful Things needs a compelling performer in the leading role. Max & Louie Productions has one in Michelle Hand.

The stage adaptation of Tiny Beautiful Things needs a compelling performer in the leading role. Max & Louie Productions has one in Michelle Hand.

The 80-minute play is based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. It is a collection of her work as Sugar, the advice columnist for the online literary magazine, The Rumpus. Strayed began her stint as Sugar in 2010 after the originator of the column invited her to take it over.

It was hardly practical for Strayed to take on an unpaid, pseudonymous position when she was already finishing a book, raising two children, and facing “ten mountains of debt.” She accepted the offer anyway.

Strayed based her advice on her own experience. Emboldened perhaps by her anonymity, she wrote with astonishing candor about the most intimate aspects of her life. Her unfiltered outpourings were poles apart from the work of columnists aiming to dispense objective advice.

In 2012, Strayed revealed her identity, ended the column, and collected her writings as Tiny Beautiful Things. The book debuted in fifth position on the New York Times Best Seller List in the advice and self-help category.

The book came to the attention of Nia Vardalos through two friends: journalist Marshall Heyman and director Thomas Kail. The three worked together to conceive the stage version. Vardalos headlined its premiere in December 2016 at The Public Theater.

Strayed’s first answer in the play portrays her stumbles while attempting to find her voice. She succeeds when she writes about herself and relates her experiences to the letter writer’s situation. Sugar’s arriving at her answer is as much Strayed’s subject as the answer itself.

Hand turns in a marvelous performance. She portrays Strayed with unequivocal honesty and boundless empathy for the advice seekers. Hand’s emotions vary with the subjects of the replies, but her authenticity is unwavering.

Hand receives excellent support from Greg Johnston, Wendy Renee Greenwood, and Abraham Shaw, who play all the letter writers. Their wide-ranging expressiveness keeps the play from falling into a predictable rhythm. Johnston is especially moving as a father incapacitated by grief for a son who was killed by a drunk driver.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga adds visual interest with clever, purposeful movement that allows the cast to exploit the variety of acting areas in Dunsi Dai’s scenic design. Eileen Engel’s costumes, Patrick Huber’s lighting, Katie Orr’s props, and Phillip Evans’s sound lend solidity and definition to the world in which the letters come to life.

Max & Louie wisely chooses to amplify the sound. In its most recent updating, the Grandel Theatre acquired an excellent sound system that compensates fully for the space’s unforgiving acoustics.