Nia Vardalos’ stage script based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book is briliantly rendered by SF Playhouse’s Suzi Damilano and crew
San Francisco, CA, USA – Tiny Beautiful Things made its Bay Area premier recently at the San Francisco Playhouse.
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book of the same title, Tiny Beautiful Things, the stage play, is Nia Vardalos‘ exquisite rendering of Strayed’s unforgettable 2010 to 2012 “Dear Sugar” advice columns. Drawn from her own life experiences, Strayed’s responses to her letter writers were more than “just” advice, and SF Playhouse’s description of the play is entirely true: “Tiny Beautiful Things is a play about reaching when you’re stuck, healing when you’re broken, and finding the courage to take on the questions that have no answers. Tissues recommended.” Emphasis added.
“I’ve always been a secret fan of advice columns,” Artistic Director and SF Playhouse co-founder Bill English shares. “I am drawn to the question of how people reach out for understanding and how they find it.” English‘s personal interest in the premise of Tiny Beautiful Things is certainly motivation enough to take on the production. But both English and SF Playhouse co-director Susi Damilano believe the play to be in alignment with the theme of “empathy” that is characteristic of what English terms their “empathy gym.” English introduced the premier performance by stating Strayed and the house were “cut from the same cloth,” and that he and Damilano were pleased to share the “spirit of unity built in the theater (via this production) out into the world.”
Those who read Strayed’s columns or book Tiny Beautiful Things will have an instant appreciation for the epistolary nature of the performance; those who haven’t read them will still be able to appreciate the vulnerability of connection between an anonymous advisor sharing very deeply with those asking for help with problems ranging from the startling to the wondrous.
The cast of four (who work marvelously together) features SF Playhouse’s Susi Damilano as lead (“Sugar”), Kina Kantor (Letter Writer #3), Mark Anderson Phillips (Letter Writer #3), and Jomar Tagatac (Letter Writer #2). Damilano as the ever-calm and ever-constant advising Sugar not only seems authentic in vulnerability but also in her shifts in engagement with so many scenarios brought to her attention by the Letter Writers. One challenge for the Letter Writers was that they each represented multiple individuals writing to “Dear Sugar,” of course involving many shifts in and out of character (age, ethnicity, gender, personality) during one performance. However, each was believable and entertaining. The poignancy in what the Letter Writer actors are communicating via recitation of these plaintive- and sometimes kooky, but in a good way- queries is only surpassed by their ability to deliver such diverse and often lengthy soliloquies.
When asked which was his favorite letter query to share on stage, Letter Writer #2, Mark Anderson Phillips said it was “Letter #78,” “The Obliterated Place,” which is a two-script-page treatise on how a father- even with all of the best in an arsenal of psychological and other supports- can go on living after the loss of his son. Damilano’s response, as “Sugar,” equally brilliant, is even longer.
Letter Writers and Columnist in Tiny Beautiful Things bring tough life issues to the fore: death of a child, childhood sexual abuse, coming out, relationships with family- all of the things that any one of us in the audience might be going through- yet that none of us might share. As Director English confirms in the play bill, “As an audience, it is our charge to open our hearts to the actor, to allow their experience to resonate and merge with our own. Our theatre is the one place we can drop our guard for a few hours, and we must.”
Anderson Phillips eventually also sets up Damilano to deliver her “Letter #39: The Baby Bird” piece with his character’s oft-repeated- and very funny- query, “Dear Sugar, WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything in life…” Damilano, as “Sugar,” as Strayed, takes her moment to share an unforgettable story about the seemingly unforgivable sexual abuse she endured by way of her grandfather. Warning: Some may find this uncomfortable.
But some may find this useful, and that, perhaps even as exemplified by the list of resources posted in the theater on Opening Night (and posted below for reference), is the point.
This production runs at San Francisco Playhouse until March 7, 2020
Text ©2020 Michele Caprario
Photos by Jessica Palopuli; used with permission of SF Playhouse
Susi Damilano as “Sugar”
Mark Anderson Phillips as “Letter Writer #1”
Kina Kantor as “Letter Writer #2”
Jomar Tagatac as “Letter Writer #3”
This production runs January 28, 2020 to March 7, 2020.
SAN FRANCISCO PLAYHOUSE is located within the KENSINGTON PARK HOTEL at
450 Post Street, 2nd Floor,San Francisco, CA
TICKETS: For tickets ($35-$125) or more information, the public may contact the San Francisco Playhouse box office at 415-677-9596, or online at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/