By Lynn Venhaus
Heart-tugging and hopeful, “Tiny Beautiful Things” strikes universal chords as it reverberates through a darkened theater.
Now playing at The Grandel, the deeply personal journeys of people who cared enough to reach out to another human, to make that connection in cyberspace, even when they were confused or desperate or sad or angry, will smack you upside your head, resonate emotionally, and may elicit a few tears and some smiles – if you let it pull you in (and why resist?).
Perhaps listening to four people be vulnerable will prompt the proverbial light bulb to come on, illuminating what’s going on in your life. Or by hearing about others’ experiences, you will be comforted too.
The well-worn themes of love and loss provide perspective in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling self-help book, served up by Nia Vardalos with sprinklings of humor and heaping amounts of compassion. This is not your mom’s yellowed Ann Landers’ clippings.
“Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” was published in 2012, a collection of essays from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. She took it over from her friend, Steve Almond, in 2010. The book also includes essays not previously published.
With a nudge from director Thomas Kail, who was given the book by journalist Marshall Heyman, Vardalos conceived it as a play, mixing in the author’s memoir along with the dating advice and grieving support.
It premiered at The Public Theater in December 2016, starring Vardalos as Sugar and three actors playing various e-mail letter writers, directed by Tony Award-winner and Emmy nominee Kail (“Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” “Fosse/Verdon”), and a revised version returned the next year.
The story’s framework is simple: The writer dispenses words of wisdom, an understanding achieved after many battles of her own, and because she is willing to expose herself to strangers, they in turn disclose their inner-most thoughts and feelings.
With such candid material to work with, producing artistic director Stellie Siteman and managing director De Kaplan knew it was the right choice for their company, Max and Louie Productions, to return with after a harsh 16 months that has changed us all.
Because we endured a pandemic period filled with isolation and self-reflection about our own lives, being with others post-coronavirus quarantine reinforces what we all know but need to be reminded about: We are not alone.
Even with the best of intentions, this could come across very Hallmark cards-like, reducing sentiments to those home décor signs urging us to “Forgive and Forget” or “Live Laugh Love,” but Vardalos and Strayed are too smart to settle for repeating platitudes, as are the women involved in this production.
Vardalos struck gold writing and starring in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” two decades ago, earning an Oscar nomination in 2003, and Strayed, who was a troubled soul trying to come to terms with her past and present through a 1,100-mile hike in 1995, published that life-changing trek in the 2012 bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Both are grounded women who have achieved success representing their own lives so authentically, which is the foundation here.
Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga understood the challenges of this piece and did not embellish it with any unnecessary frills. She approached the play in a straightforward and sincere manner, which is affecting and skillfully presented by this veteran cast, anchored with authority by Michelle Hand.
The creative team’s collaboration is subtle. The minimal scenic design by master of detail Dunsi Dai suits the intent. Ronga moved, with purpose, the actors around furniture that represents their characters’ homes – including a couch, a bed, a desk and a table. Everything appears lived in, with key items placed by props designer Katie Orr, and exudes a comfortable atmosphere, accented by lighting designer extraordinaire Patrick Huber. Costume designer Eileen Engel selected casual outfits appropriate to the roles.
Two large panels rise above – are those windows to the soul? Hmmm…This isn’t supposed to resemble a psychiatrist’s office, and the set intriguingly widens the reach while narrowing the focus.
As letter writers, versatile stage actors Greg Johnston, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Abraham Shaw strike different tones as they reveal what their assorted characters are looking for or what has defined each of their lives.
As the human faces of email exchanges, they present their questions and responses in a natural way, becoming a de facto support system and sounding board. One of Johnston’s characters blurts out WTF several times, amusing the audience with such a declaration. (The play contains some strong language and adult content).
As Sugar, Hand wrestles with confidence and her conscience, showing the growth of Cheryl and depicting the raw honesty for which the writer is known. That draws the other characters in, and us, too.
Writers are often hard to portray, especially typing at a computer, for the work is such an internal process — unless there are major conflicts. With this format, we don’t follow the 80-minute show like regular storytelling — nor does it reach a dramatic conclusion – but is moving nonetheless.
What makes this so touching then? Could it be as plain as seeking meaning while we find our way, holding on to ideals and keeping faith that things will turn out all right? Or it’s OK to say we aren’t OK? Because having lived through the uncertainty and anxiety of a public health crises, something we are still processing, this performance on Friday night seemed as warm as your grandma’s chunky hand-knit afghan and as familiar as a hug from a cherished loved one.
Strayed doesn’t profess to have all the answers, nor does she say she can fix everybody and everything. But by offering examples of her struggles, exposing herself so openly, somehow, we come out of the dark and into the light. It’s that simple, but that profound.
Hand approaches each role so genuinely that you believe whatever situation she is going through, whether she is Tami, the exasperated mother of an autistic son in “Falling” at Mustard Seed Theatre; Toril Grandal, a cook serving her family’s special pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream to world leaders, in “Oslo” at The Rep; or the broken-hearted lesbian artist Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre.
She is best at bringing the humanity out in her characters, real people portraits — (cases in point, Maggie Dalton in St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Breeches!”, who discovers her mettle while her husband is fighting in World War II, St. Louis Theater Circle Best Actress in a Comedy Award 2019; and innocent Rose Mundy, the intellectually challenged sister in “Dancing at Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed).
Anyone with a heart – lonely, heavy, hungry, normal – can relate to the personal stories shared. In a world where empathy seems to be in short supply, this work restores the belief that we get to carry each other, and through that, the broken can be healed.
If you crave the intimacy and insight that live theater can supply, “Tiny Beautiful Things” will reward you.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is presented without intermission at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in St. Louis, from July 29 to Aug. 8. Performances are at 2 p.m. on Aug. 1 and 8; at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 4 and 5, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6 and 7.
Tickets are on sale at www.metrotix.com or by phone at 314-534-1111 or at the box office an hour before curtain. Socially distanced reserved seating is restricted to groups of 2 and 4 consecutive seats, and booth seating is available for groups of 4 and 6. Masks are required.
Max & Louie Productions has received its Missouri ArtSafe certification. To ensure that they may create safely, present safely, and attend safely, they pledge to Covid-19 safe protocols which patrons are encouraged to view at Max & Louie Productions’ website at www.maxandlouie.com.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.