Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Tiny Beautiful Things
Also see Richard's review of Billy Elliot
Adapted from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the play is written by Nia Vardalos, author of the lighthearted romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And yet the two works could not be more different. In this 2016 theatricalization, we are delivered from sexual trauma, and every kind of brokenness, into a place of zen-like peace and enlightenment, over and over (and over) again. Sugar, an internet advice columnist with a lot of personal crises in her own past, fields dozens of modern conundrums from her readers. That's it. She doesn't go to France, or rob a bank. But calmly, almost magically, she turns pain into healing, which is a little like turning St. Louis into Paris, and steals people from their own vaults of emotional turmoil to give them back a sense of freedom. Actress Michelle Hand plays the columnist, and her oft-seen gifts of warmth and intelligence transform the play's assembly line of healing into a thing of beauty.
Perhaps inevitably, some of our own past crises may come bubbling up from the depths as we watch. In my case, one of my favorite grievances seemed to land right on that same invisible assembly line of healing, or on to the adopted psychological mechanism of it all in my head, as I sat there in silence. And all my plotting of revenge became irrelevant to just getting on with life. I felt healed. But now I need a new hobby.
It reminds me of the collection of riddle-like koans in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps in 1957) and reading them straight through in one or two sittings as a young man: a kind of "good" brainwashing, a freeing of the soul, though the steady pace of it all on stage becomes a little exhausting. (There is an amusing "slumber party" variation on the process about halfway through the play, for variety's sake.) But my attention wandered near the end, during the dueling monologs between Sugar and an advice-seeker (actor Greg Johnston) who had lost a 20-year-old son in a car crash. He brandishes at least two dozen reasons why he's so miserable, and she comes right back with a similarly long list of reasons to keep going and to find happiness. And that list manages to be magical without seeming Pollyannaish. And damned if it doesn't all make perfect sense in a fresh, enlightening way. It's just that those last ten minutes or so dig really deep.
(There's a visual joke at the top of the show, as Sugar cleans up her children's toys, andwhen no one's lookingtries her hand at the old Hasbro board game "Operation," diving in with a pair of tweezers, into the guts of that astonished cartoon patient. It's a metaphor for her own coming excavations.)
The play avoids becoming "advice porn" or "scandal porn," thanks to the level of humanity displayed throughout. It's a clever balancing act in the way the show maintains its emotional honesty and self-respect. But the nature and variety of human tragedy is considered so extensively that it seems to become the inevitable curse of our identity. Confronting the insane chaos of real-life tragedies in a long series feels like staring at one of those optical illusion "Magic Eye" posters that turns out to be a 3-D dinosaur: the mad blizzard of emotional trauma, becoming a familiar state of being and finally coalescing into a mystical, prehistoric monster we can't stop staring at, searching it for meaning. We don't necessarily come to a new understanding of the shimmering beast of tragedy that faintly emerges, seen here from so many different angles. But we begin to sense it has fixed dimensions, that it can be fought, or at least parried with. And perhaps we realize the good there is in grievance-sharing, and the artfulness of a well-told parable.
Mr. Johnston, along with Wendy Renée Greenwood and Abraham Shaw, play a chorus of modern people, some scoffing and many at wit's end, for reasons both plain and elusive. Mr. Shaw shows unexpected flexibility, at various points regressing into adolescence and childhood, and before that portraying a transgender man who's received a surprising letter from his parents. And Ms. Greenwood is especially touching as a compulsive thief, and elsewhere in telling the story of a miscarriage, worsened by a thoughtless comment in the obstetrician's office. In his own repeated appearances, Mr. Johnston is absurdly funny demanding "WTF? WTF? WTF?" from Sugar. But the emotional undercurrent he leverages in these moments is every bit as jarring as any of the play's narrative stories.
And this is where you find the sage, on her mountaintop, in the twenty-first century: on your phone or your laptop. The air still grows thin, and the wind cold, in the impossibly clear-headed view of this master, who endured trials of her own. But it seems Ms. Hand was cast in the role as a natural bubble of warmth to contain it all, as we invite ourselves back to the dance once more.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs through August 8, 2021, at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square (the white stone church building at Grand and Washington, between Powell Symphony Hall and the Fabulous Fox Theatre), St. Louis MO. For more information and tickets, visit www.maxandlouie.com.