“Dear Sugar, … I’m secretly addicted to pain meds.”
“Dear Sugar, Icky thoughts turn me on …”
“Dear Sugar, My wife drinks while I am at work …”
“Dear Sugar, My daughter has a tumor … and I find myself doubting God’s existence.”
“Dear Sugar, My birth mother doesn’t want to meet me.”
“Dear Sugar, What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Best, WTF.”
As she stands in her kitchen in her socks and favorite pj’s and sweater, Cheryl postpones finishing her latest novel and proceeds instead to become the anonymous, online advice columnist “Sugar,” while also sipping a glass of wine and totally ignoring the clothes to be folded on the nearby couch. The published author, mother of two with an artist husband and “ten mountains of debt” has just accepted an out-of-the-blue-via-email offer by the former and retiring “Sugar” to take over a job for which he enticed her with “There’s no credit, and the bonus is, there’s no pay.”
Tiny Beautiful Things is a stage play by Academy Award and Golden-Globe nominated writer and actress Nia Vardalos – a play adapted from the memoir by the same title by best-selling author Cheryl Strayed who in fact was two years an online version of “Dear Abby” called “Sugar” for the literary website The Rumpus. Now in its highly captivating, fast-paced Bay Area premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, Tiny Beautiful Things is eighty minutes of a barrage of letters to Sugar from people of every sort who are seeking – often desperately and as a last resort – the listening ear, the comfort, and hopefully the needed answer from someone of whom they also demand,
- “Are you a therapist?”
- “Are you in therapy?”
- “Are you even qualified for this gig?”
Susi Damilano is nothing short of stunningly brilliant as the purveyor of homegrown counsel to the cyberspace letters she receives by the dozens, made even more so through the direction she is given by her husband and her co-founder of SF Playhouse, Bill English. Together, they have created a Cheryl-turned-Sugar who embodies a delicious wit, a palpable curiosity, a deep sense of caring for others never met, and a bold manner of encouraging others to embrace life’s good and bad and move boldly forward toward tomorrow. Her Sugar is able to succeed in creating an eager following largely because she openly, even eagerly reveals her vulnerability, leading to her own self-discovery and self-healing as she recounts aspects of her life’s ups and downs in response to their questions. Her own typed words lay bare the emotion-packed details of her own past addictions, failed marriage, and childhood abuse, providing a credibility that no university-provided pedigree could give the advice that this counselor provides to those just as anonymous in their asking as she is in her answering.
As conceived by Nia Vardalos and directed by Bill English, the letter writers are played by three cast members who enter into Cheryl’s household and essentially take up residence for the course of the play, increasingly make themselves more and more at home as they forage through the refrigerator for a glass of wine, fold those neglected clothes, or help make the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for Cheryl/Sugar’s kids. All the time, the three invisible but very present visitors become the voices and persona of the letter writers as they vividly, credibly, and emotionally represent all ages, sexes, races, and walks of life.
Among the opening flood of epistles that the somewhat stunned Sugar receives, Mark Anderson Phillips is first an employee complaining about the boss who doesn’t like her and fearing she will barf on a boat trip the boss is making her go on before he switches a couple of letters later to be a tentatively voiced woman of thirty-five who tee-hees a bit as she asks if the $1000 a month she is going to receive for an arrangement with a married man is taxable income.
Kina Kantor voices her first letter as a seventy-year-old man who suspects his widowed neighbor is spying on his shirtless body as he pulls the weeds while Jomar Tagatac initially is an eighth-grade girl who is concerned she’s been paired in science class with “an anti-social kid who picks his nose.”
Cheryl first finds her voice and her methodology as Sugar when Jomar Tagatac becomes a letter-writing guy signed as “Confused” who has become serious about a woman after two failed relationships and is now wondering with a voice unsure when “to take that big step and say, ‘I love you’.” Sugar relates a story that increasingly gathers a sense of genuineness, depth of feeling, and truth of direction as she remembers her dying mother who passed without she as daughter being by her side but whose parting word the last time she saw her was ‘love.’ Admitting, “I bet you think this has nothing to do with your question,” Sugar moves into what becomes her trademark style of communicating something that Cheryl has learned from her own life, in this case relating the many aspects of love we all experience that can be both wowing and hurtful but that – in the words Sugar uses to impart her help – make it worthwhile to “tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” In other words, she tells “Confused” to “Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime” and “love.”
And with that letter’s answer, Sugar also makes in her mind’s eye and in our seen stage reality the first eye-to-eye contact with a writer, with both visibly struck by that moment of virtually seeing into the other’s soul. The three letter writers and Sugar become ever more comfortable in their cyber world together, with the contact made through words playing out physically as Sugar moves to sit next to a suffering, young woman who had a miscarriage (Kina Kantor) or reaches out to touch the hand of a thirty-four-year-old transgender man (Jomar Tagatac) who is scared of making contact with parents who years before had rejected the girl/daughter who knew she was really a boy/their son.
The letters are often heart-wrenching like that of a middle-aged woman about to be married but who was once raped and wonders if she should tell her fiancé, with each actor – like in this case, Kina Kantor – being exceptional in instantaneously becoming the various persona with their latest mannerisms, emotions, and physical characteristics being immediately believable. And as Sugar answers them, we see in Susi Damilano’s personification of Cheryl/Sugar a woman whose own emotions are often movingly gripping as seen in her clasped hands, the tearing in her eyes, or in a sudden shudder or far-off look stemmed from a long-lost remembrance of pain or loss.
But never fear, there is much humor and fun twirled furiously among the sometimes screaming, pounding, snarky, and even X-rated letters that arrive with the visible-to-us letter writers often rushing toward Sugar and crowding around her, pleading for an answer. There is a man whose wife is turned on by Santa outfits, and he wants to know with a devilish tone what he should do next. (I will let you imagine how Sugar responds.) There is also once again Mr. WTF who repeatedly shows up on the screen and on our stage stomping his feet and running to the ‘frig for a beer before plopping down on a chair in a sullen and sour mood, demanding of Dear Sugar, “What the fuck?”
Be forewarned that there is no plot to this play; and in many ways, while there is a beginning, there is not much of a middle or an end. But there is a viable story that unfolds of what it means in our world to seek human connection in times of confusion, fear, curiosity, and need; and what it looks like when that connection among unattached people is actually made – even if only virtually. Alone somewhere on their computers, these folks find someone who listens; and among them, a community somehow forms. It may be invisible and unreal, but one has to believe in watching Sugar and her writers that it is very possible that the connections made are in fact very real with visible help and tangible outcomes possible for both ends of those sent-and-received emails.
The magic of this San Francisco Playhouse production is greatly enhanced by a shimmering forest of silver-metallic poles that form the outline of a house and its rooms, designed so beautifully by Jacquelyn Scott. There is a sense of strength and vulnerability in the structure that matches the online dialogues we witness real-time, with the extraordinary lighting design of Michael Oesch illuminating in shimmering hues on the many, slender, metal poles the shifting moods of the sent-letters and their answers. Teddy Hulsker adds subtle, musical chords and tones that remind us we are in some space between reality and fantasy and provides an expression of some of the emotions we are both witnessing and feeling. Beyond the comfy, homebound wardrobe worn throughout by Cheryl, Maggie Whitaker costumes the rest of the cast in everyday wear that allows the cast of three to create their widely varying characters through their own ingenuous acting abilities without needing much, if any help, from what they wear at the moment.
I would be lying if I did not admit to tearing up several times as I heard and watched the delivery of these letters seeking help and as I watched the responses of a Sugar who seems to gain even more help for herself than that which she sends out into cyberspace. Nia Vardolos’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir captures the vulnerability of baring own’s core in order to seek from and to give help to a fellow human being, even one never to be met. Our learning is how much more important it is to remember that same kind of need and that same kind of help is possible all around us in our real, everyday lives. San Francisco Playhouse reminds us that there are Tiny Beautiful Things waiting to occur if we only do the simple acts of asking, listening, and responding.
Rating: 5 E
Tiny Beautiful Things continues through March 7, 2020 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli