Tiny Beautiful Things
Judy Newmark – JudyActTwo, August 6, 2021
A Little Free Advice at Max & Louie
Ten years ago, when a new troupe called Max & Louis was just beginning to build its reputation for well-curated, meticulously produced shows, artistic director Stellie Siteman played Ann Landers in a one-woman piece, “The Lady with All the Answers.”
Now, after the long pandemic break, Max & Louie returns to live performance with “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a play you could call “Daughter of The Lady.” This one is about another advice columnist, the amazingly frank Sugar, and her correspondents.
The two shows even have the same director, Sydnie Grosberg Ronga. (Siteman remains AD and her cofounder, De Kaplan, remains managing director.) Furthermore, both columnists used pen names. Eppie Lederer (that’s Ann) took a modern tone that distinguished her from advice columnists of yore; she sounded like the affluent, well-educated matron that she was in private life.
Sugar, however, is now even better known by her real name, Cheryl Strayed. She had been through plenty, everything from homecoming queen to heroin addict, by the time she became a best-selling author. Her widely-admired memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
“Wild” is in fact the book that Strayed was working on when she agreed to write the Dear Sugar column for a literary website, The Rumpus. Some of that correspondence was collected in a book, the original “Tiny Beautiful Things”; Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) turned the book into a play.
Well, into a kind of play.
Onstage, “Tiny” is basically a series of dialogues between Sugar, played by the ever-appealing Michelle Hand, and one or another of her correspondents, played by three other fine actors: Wendy Renee Greenwood, Greg Johnston and Abraham Shaw. Any one of these might have been an entire story unto itself and one of them – the climactic one, with Johnston in a powerhouse turn as a devastated man – achieves that kind of wholeness, thanks to the way that Johnston and Hand mesh their modulation to each other’s pitch.
The opening-night audience applauded for the end of each exchange, a little disconcerting – as if they were seeing many (extremely short) plays instead of one (not terribly) long one. But odd as that felt, it may also underscore the piece’s genuine accessibility.
Hand provides a kind of through-line in the flesh, gradually adding details about Sugar’s past without a trace of self-pity (though she’d be entitled to that). Performing on a modern, well-segmented stage designed by Dunsi Dai and lit by Patrick Huber, Hand’s demeanor, even as she cleans up after her children or reads an exceptionally tiresome letter, is generous and basically sunny. In the course of her play, Ann Landers admits that she does not have all the answers. In the course of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Sugar acknowledges that nobody does – but that everyone has some of them.