Tiny Beautiful Things
Mark Bretz – Ladue News, August 4, 2021
Max & Louie’s Production of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ Has Big, Complicated Heart
Highlights: Michelle Hand delivers a bravura performance as online advice columnist Dear Sugar in a touching Max & Louie Productions’ rendition of Tiny Beautiful Things.
Story: An online advice columnist responds to the questions of her troubled and/or curious readers with anecdotes and experiences from her own life in her attempt to earnestly connect with each of them.
Other Info: The show is a one-act drama written by playwright Nia Vardalos, who scored a big movie hit two decades ago with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Vardalos based her work on Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times best-seller, Tiny Beautiful Things, with an idea co-conceived by Vardalos, Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail.
Vardalo portrayed Sugar/Cheryl when it debuted at The Public Theater in New York City in a sold-out run in 2016. It’s receiving its St. Louis premiere in this affecting presentation by Max & Louie Productions directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, who cleverly utilizes Dunsi Dai’s impressive set in an ongoing matching of Sugar with her various readers.
Strayed’s column originated in an online publication called The Rumpus. She now serves as co-host of The New York Times/WBUR podcast Dear Sugars and also is co- author of The Sweet Spot advice column in the Thursday Style section of The New York Times.
As The New York Times itself states, “Tiny Beautiful Things is about the endangered art of listening to – and really hearing and responding to – other people. It works beautifully as a sustained theatrical exercise in empathy.”
Dai’s wonderfully evocative set is divided into quadrants, with each of the three performers portraying letter writers having his/her own area with a bed or a desk or assorted knickknacks at stage corners. The fourth and largest sector is at center back and represents Sugar’s abode, cluttered with an overflowing bookcase, a sofa, lamp and bed stand and situated beneath two imposing windows opening to the great unknown.
Patrick Huber’s lighting design is especially effective on the more poignant scenes, such as the haunting “WTF” letter in which a distraught and defeated man, portrayed heroically by Greg Johnston, reveals his darkest thoughts to Strand.
The characters are adorned in casual attire designed by costumer Eileen Engel, and Katie Orr’s carefully selected props complement everything else. A special nod goes to sound designer Phillip Evans for his jazz-infused selections, which underscore the modernity of this type of advice column.
Wendy Renee Greenwood and Abraham Shaw do splendid work as the other pair of the trio portraying sundry letter writers. Because Tiny Beautiful Things is essentially episodic in nature, with no real plot line, each of the players is asked to do theatrical heavy lifting and all are up to the task.
Hand’s portrayal of Sugar runs the gamut from funny to gritty to risqué to shocking to self-absorbed, presumably all parts of Strayed’s psyche. It’s an endearing, impeccably etched interpretation, which generally succeeds in carrying this one-act show. Nevertheless, it could benefit from some pruning of its 85-minute running time because of its repetitive nature.
Max & Louie Productions has received its Missouri ArtSafe certification and pledges to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. Ronga’s astute, carefully appointed direction and the seamless work of her cast makes Tiny Beautiful Things a welcome return for Max & Louie to the local theater scene.