Early into the stellar San Francisco Playhouse production of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Letter Writer #2 shares a devastating story of her miscarriage when she was six months pregnant. All her details are full of palpable pain – on this day the baby would have been six months old, that was the day crawling would have begun.
While the story itself is full of sorrow, putting the emptiness firmly on the back of this childless mother, notice what Sugar is doing – reading and filling her mind with what will ultimately be a critical response. Each word the reader sends her way is gripped by Sugar’s compelling, enigmatic mind that taps solutions onto her keys, sending out hope, empathy, inspiration or joy to the person on the receiving end.
And so it goes on and on in this piece, adapted by Nia Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s book. Strayed reached a level of fame as “Sugar,” the advice columnist for online literary magazine the Rumpus, building a loyal following of advice seekers.
The play does not function in an Aristotelian plot structure – rather it darts through space on Jacquelyn Scott’s wildly engaging set, with metal bars and posts bringing forth a strong sheen all over the stage.
Things move quickly with the four-person cast, led by Susi Damilano as Sugar. What is strongest about Damilano’s portrayal lies in her ability to play a sort of literary Everywoman – she comes across as wholly likable with a scintillating ability to do what good advice columnists do – give advice driven by abject inspiration. Sugar has problems like the rest of her subjects – deep in debt, some past heroin use and working her fingers off for free.
The three actors tasked to play a multitude of letter writers – Mark Anderson Phillips as #1, Kina Kantor as #2 and Jomar Tagatac as #3 are quite unified under the sharp direction of artistic director Bill English. Those three do not strive to play perfect authenticity in each of their multiple characterizations. Stylistically, they are creating an essence more than building a transformative impression, each taking a turn sharing a critical and sharp portrayal.
Tagatac is solid in his versatility and Kantor brings forth a warmth and truth to her letters, especially when she sits and listens to the response she seeks. Phillips carries a different energy based on what his character writes, sometimes needing to put on a portrayal that is purposely, slightly grating. His letters are loaded with emotional demands, and in a critical letter, a beautiful back and forth between he and Sugar takes place as he shares what his life has become after burying his son. This moment, which comes in the form of two dueling, numbered lists, devastates as Living Dead Dad searches for ways to return to his original status of being human. Sugar is quick to remind him that his son is still serving as his teacher, just from a different stratosphere.
Damilano is a performer who marries beautifully compassionate empathy with flat out hard work, even though not every letter Sugar responds to compels equally. There are certain moments that the script glosses over moments that may have been essential, but just aren’t. Her Sugar is the through line of the entire piece, a constant presence in the lives of her subjects, but it expands further than that. A letter writer merely reaches out to the columnist, but the true recipients of all this wisdom are those in the audience and those who read.
A letter to an anonymous “Dear” is popular because of how much it can connect to us. And nowhere in that letter is there more connection than in the writer’s final line. This is where we get down to the simplest yet most poignant moment which boils all the ideas down to an allegory. Take a scan to see who is writing these letters – a married man getting bored in his marriage calls himself “Afraid to Leave,” a transgender male debates about having a meeting with the parents who ostracized him signs off as “Orphan,” and a guy whose girlfriend is turned on by Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick pens his final words as “Signed, Sexy Santa.”
Newspaper advice columnists are not designed to substitute for clinical advice or peer support. They cheer on, they encourage, they reveal universe by enlightenment. Their power is how they rearrange disheveled souls in order to give a fresh, objective perspective.
No matter how tiny of a corner of the newspaper the advice column resides, that little piece of black and white real estate has the power to reveal things that are absolutely beautiful, whether through laughter, promise or pain.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Francisco Playhouse presents the Bay Area premiere of “Tiny Beautiful Things”
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail
The Word: A very tight cast of four reveal the universe that exists for those searching for advice in a strong production of Cheryl Strayed’s adapted book.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through March 7th
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $35 – $125
For tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org