BWW Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS at SF Playhouse
Susi Damilano gives a career-defining performance in the Bay Area premiere of Academy Award and Golden Globe-nominated writer Nia Vardalos' emotionally rewarding adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's best-selling book. Gorgeously directed by husband Bill English, Tiny Beautiful Things will touch everyone's heartstrings in numerous aspects, leaving you moved, exhilarated and yes, maybe even a tiny bit healed.
Damilano plays an author who jumps at the opportunity to take over an anonymous advice column. Using the pseudonym Sugar, she begins to answer the questions of real-life readers by weaving in her own experiences as illustrations of how she moved forward through her emotional crises. Who knew that the simple construct of a 'Dear Abby' format could take on such immense weight, but Vardalos' choice of topics and English's staging combine to create a heartfelt, deeply collaborate sense of communal healing unlike the trite psycho-babble images of a Dr. Phil.
From her home laptop, Sugar receives raw, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching letters from a host of people all superbly played by Kina Kantor (Letter Writer #2, Mark Anderson Phillips (Letter Writer #1) and Jomar Tagatac as Letter Writer #3. The letters run the gamut from love, drug dependency, sexual abuse, suicide and grief, each signed with an adjective like 'stuck', 'trapped', "Living Dead dad' or 'WTF'. Freed by the anonymity of the column, The Dear Sugar writers enthusiastically bare their souls and, in her responses, Sugar works through her own baggage; the death of her mother, her drug use and the sour relationship with her estranged father.
Kina Kantor's mostly female characters speak to the horrors of domestic violence, miscarriages and infidelity. Sugars message to her is that 'No' is a powerful tool that sets boundaries and creates self-worth. One of Mark Anderson Phillips' many characters is numb from grief over the loss of his son. One by one he lists his heartache and for any of us who's experienced loss, we're right there with his tortured, raw emotions. Sugar's answers are concise, well-conceived, supportive and nurturing. When she explains how grief is proof of the magnitude of your love, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Similarly, Jomar Tagatac's transgender character struggling with the concept of forgiveness for his parents who abandoned and crushed him receives am equally sincere reply that forgiveness is strength of character and allows his parents to change just like he did. The acting by the cast is exceptional and on par with the strength of the material.
Jacquelyn Scott's stunning set of industrial rods reminded me of needles poking at the skin's surface to elicit some kind of response. Michael Oesch's subtle color changes reflect off the forest of rods creating an expressive aura of possibility. Tiny Beautiful Things is powerful medicine for anyone with issues to heal. Its message is tough; be broken, be contradictory, transcend the shit and be open. Theatre experiences like this fantastic production don't come around that often, so treat yourself to some self-love.
Tiny Beautiful Things continues through March 7, 2020 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Ticket available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling (415) 677-9596
Photos by Jessica Palopoli