Theatre review: Tiny Beautiful Things, Bille Brown Theatre

The best advice comes from an unlikely source in the stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s well-crafted book.

Based on the best-selling book by US author Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, Tiny Beautiful Things was originally staged off-Broadway in 2016. Recently it was adapted into a television show in the US and is making its professional premiere in Australia at Queensland Theatre.

It is a pity, however, that the work is being staged using American dialects, as nothing in its content dictates that it is country specific. With the many current social issues it raises, it may have had more resonance by being transferred to an Australian location.  

Tiny Beautiful Things explores the world of Sugar, a pseudonym used by Strayed when she spent two years writing an anonymous ‘agony aunt’ column on the website The Rumpus. Despite having no background in responding to the very wide-ranging questions that people ask her online, once she gets into her stride there is no stopping her. 

Basing her responses on personal life experiences appears to be the key to her success. She is disarming and often brutally candid. Yet at the core of her answers there always appears to be love and compassion, despite truly terrible things related by her own story. This true-life advice column became legendary in the US before Strayed owned up to who she was. She subsequently compiled the letters she received into a book, which then morphed into the play.   

The letters themselves are epistolary vignettes rather than dialogue and interaction between characters, usually the basis of drama associated with a play. They always start with ‘Dear Sugar’ and end with a nickname – ‘Confused’, ‘Crushed’, ‘Too Much’, ‘Thief’ or even ‘Sexy Santa’. Sugar responds to ‘Dear Confused’ and signs off as ‘Sugar’. As collated for a stage production, this collection of letters could have been a tedious 95 minutes where nothing much happens. 

Fortunately, director Lee Lewis has grounded the play in a domestic setting, where Sugar spends much of her time tidying up the mess of her cluttered toy-strewn house rather than typing. Sugar, played quite beautifully throughout by Mandy McElhinney, interacts with her letter writers by being constantly on the move (cleaning, picking up toys, washing and ironing etc) while talking directly to the audience. 

There is humour, sadness and some distinctly disturbing elements in her responses but, due to well-crafted and articulate writing by Strayer and McElhinney’s first-rate skills at bringing her soliloquies vividly to life, this staging is grounded in authenticity and works well. Lewis is assisted by an excellent and clever set design by Simone Romaniuk, with separate rooms, steps and spaces all used to great advantage. There is solidly realistic, as well as atmospheric, lighting from Bernie Tan-Hayes. 

The three letter writers in the play, representing what may have been hundreds of writers over those two years, inhabit the spaces around Sugar in various positions. They talk either at her or directly to the audience as they pour out their continuing stream of dilemmas. They are well-played by three diverse actors: Sepi Burgiani, Stephen Geronimos and Nic Prior.  

Prior uses a range of vocals and characteristics to delineate the age and gender of his various writers, giving a finely nuanced performance as a transgender young man whose parents have rejected him and now want to reconnect, who signs off as ‘Orphan’. Sugar’s advice of forgiveness is full of love. 

Geronimos plays a wide variety of interesting characters, his pièce de résistance being ‘Living Dead Dad’ who cannot recover from the sudden death of his 22-year-old son. His 22 questions are answered by 22 responses from Sugar with ‘beauty being greater than bitterness’ her watchword.  Unfortunately, Burgiani is under-powered vocally with projection issues. It proves difficult to understand her, especially when she turns her back to the audience. It is a pity as it unbalances the collective support of the three writers.

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Love definitely proves to be a subject about which Sugar has strong opinions. We learn that her last meeting with her mother, who died at just 45 years of age, was traumatic and still haunts her. Gradually it appears that Sugar seems to be offloading onto her letter writers as much as they are offloading onto her. By the end of the play, we appear to know all her secrets of heroin addiction, abortion and family sexual abuse but, importantly, how she tries to forgive and keep going. 

All the characters in the play keep their distance, as in reality they are never physically in the same space. Yet at the end of Sugar’s final 22 responses to ‘Living Dead Dad’, the character walks past her and briefly touches her shoulder, perhaps in thanks.

Is it this gesture that prompts her to reveal her real name to her letter writers, thereby concluding her role as agony aunt? Perhaps some cathartic change has taken place and the last scene, where her house is now completely tidy and clean, may indeed be a very good place from which the Sugar character can move on.      

Tiny Beautiful Things 
Bille Brown Theatre, Queensland Theatre
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos 

Director: Lee Lewis   
Set and Costume Designer: Simone Romaniuk 
Lighting Designer: Bernie Tan-Hayes  
Composer/Sound Designer: Brady Watkins 

Cast: Sepi Burgiani, Stephen Geronimos, Mandy McElhinney, Nic Prior 

Tiny Beautiful Things will be performed until 15 July 2023. 

Suzannah Conway is ArtsHub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer. Suzannah is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 15 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.