Tiny Beautiful Things
Michelle Kenyon – Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts, August 2, 2021
Max & Louie Presents a Memorable, Thoughtful “Tiny Beautiful” Production
Now that the St. Louis theatre schedule is starting to fill up again, I’m thinking about the types of shows that work especially well for “re-introducing” theatre to an audience that has been missing it for so long. There are the “fun” shows that are there primarily to entertain, there are those that celebrate the art of theatre itself, and then there are the thoughtful, thought-provoking shows that ask questions that may or may not be answered. Even though it’s a show that’s framed to be about someone answering questions, Tiny Beautiful Things, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, is one of these thought-stirring types of shows, compellingly performed by a first-rate cast.
The play is a dramatic presentation, adapted by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) of a book by writer Cheryl Strayed, which is essentially a compilation of letters and answers from an advice column that Strayed once wrote for an online literary magazine called The Rumpus. In the production, Strayed (played here by Michelle Hand) takes on the mantle of “Dear Sugar” after the job is offered to her by the column’s previous writer (Greg Johnston). As “Sugar”, Hand is the only performer who plays the same role throughout the production. The three other players (Johnston, Wendy Renée Greenwood, and Abraham Shaw) play a variety of characters, from the writers of the various dramatized letters, to readers who are eager to learn Sugar’s identity, to figures in Strayed personal life, and most notably her mother (Greenwood), who has a profound influence in Strayed’s life, career, and advice. It’s a short play, running at roughly 90 minutes with no intermission, but there’s a lot here to think about. The letters run the gamut from the humorous to the profound, touching on a range of issues from relationships (with parents, significant others, etc.) to personal identity and acceptance, to aspirational goals, and more.
The show here has a structure if not exactly a lot of “action”. The “plot” is essentially the progression of “Sugar’s” thought process as she explores her own background by way of trying to help others through her answers to their letters, and the letters also deal with some lighter issues as well as some more intense, weighty ones (including addiction, as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse), providing the audience the opportunity to think and process how we might respond to them, as well as to Sugar’s answers. What’s especially compelling here in the dramatic presentation is the performance, and the excellent portrayals by all four of the cast members, led by the superb Hand in an engaging performance as Sugar. Johnston, Greenwood, and Shaw are also especially strong in portraying a range of different characters and situations, and the imagined interactions with Sugar are poignantly portrayed. It’s all compellingly staged by director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga in a way that makes the subject matter, and the various characters, especially relatable and stirring.
The production values are excellent, as is usual with this theatre company, with a great set by Dunsi Dai and costumes by Eileen Engel, striking lighting by Patrick Huber, and proficient sound design by Phillip Evans. Tiny Beautiful Things is a memorable production with top-notch performances that’s sure to make audiences think, and another reminder of what’s so great about being back in the theatre.