Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Tiny Beautiful Things — which just debuted Saturday at SF Playhouse — recounts the story of Cheryl Strayed’s experiences as an anonymous advice writer whose column “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus made her something of an enigmatic national phenomenon.
The stage for the piece is a metallic wonderland of forearm-thick poles designed by the Playhouse’s set producer and props artisan, Jacquelyn Scott. The kitchen — utilitarian and familiar to anyone who’s stepped foot inside a working-class home — exists as a safe space for “Sugar” (Susi Damilano) to compose her columns from. Glasses of liberally poured white wine find themselves atop a freestanding cabinet, where she types, often. Modest pieces of furniture and light fixtures bookend the stage, left to right.
But Sugar’s spoken advice brings both levity and light to the intimate stage production, a welcomed contrast to the doom-and-gloom. You appreciate her enlightened wordsmithing despite the clinical environment.
Letter writers — portrayed by company talent Jomar Tagatac, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Kina Kantor — push Sugar to reveal her real-life persona, but she remains steadfast, keeping her avatar until the play’s very end. (Fun Fact: In real-life, Strayed hosted her “coming-out” party in San Francisco some two years after secretly taking on the advice column on in 2010.)
Advice columns are something of a cultural albatross, which is to say most readers only seek them out during times of deep sorrow and woe. We’re “stuck,” looking to get unstuck. We’re clamoring to be consoled. Or, at times more cynically put: to find irrefutable evidence that our struggles are uniquely ours.
But Sugar navigates these cases of chronic uniqueness by weaving together her own wisdom into those replies. In a patchwork of sorts, she sews in clarity, laughter, compassion, and understanding into her prose. And Strayed's work at the Rumpus served to reveal a perennial truth about humanity: We’re all cut from the same cloth, no matter our race, gender, sexuality, and privilege or lack thereof.
Sugar doesn’t need to pry too far into our humanness to find evidence of that.
Have you ever been afraid of approaching the precipitous of love? Letter Writer #3 (Jomar Tagatac) writes her asking, “When do I have to take that big step and say, ‘I love you’?,” to which Sugar lends her opinion.
“Whenever you feel like you love someone,” she adds in bout of catharsis.
Off the page, Strayed lost her mother when she was a senior in college to advance lung cancer. The last gift she received from her was a Holiday sweater, one Strayed was critical of upon receiving; she never said "I love it."
“You’ll regret the things you never say.”
The intermission-free 90-minute show carries on in a similar fashion. Sugar reveals her past numbing agents (heroin, meth, cocaine, sexual proclivity), failures of kindness, a past divorce, and more, all in order to lend olive branches those desperately seeking something to cling on to.
Though, Sugar does lament that seldom it’s best to just let go.
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be,” Sugar says. “Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose, sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go.”
But throughout Sugar’s rounds of textual (and then orated) gymnastics, no landing is grounded more flawlessly than when she replies to “Living Dead Dead” (Mark Anderson Philips). Having lost his son to a rogue drunk driver, he’s despondent — uncomfortably, relatably so. Instead of penning a traditional letter, Living Dead Dad sends Sugar a confession list of 22 bullet-pointed truths.
“[...] You go on by being generous, [...] you go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days,” Sugar proposes when Living Dead Dad admits to his inability to transcend his only son’s sudden death. “You go on finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.”
Vardalos's play, along with Strayed's inspired words, helps the audience find some new channels as well.
'Tiny Beautiful Things' at the San Francisco Playhouse runs through March 7th, tickets ($35-$125) are available at sfplayhouse.org
Image: Courtesy of SF Playhouse