Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Tiny Beautiful Things is, for the most part, an epistolary play, told through letters written to Sugar (Susi Damilano) by a wide range of people with an equally wide range of problems, from mundane (an eighth-grader worried they will be saddled with the least popular, nose-picking kid as a science lab partner) to undeniably tragic (children disowned by their parents, a woman who can't shake her grief over a miscarriage, a man whose 22-year-old son was killed by a hit and run driver). These correspondents are played by a trio of actors: Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor, and Jomar Tagatac. "Dear Sugar," they cry out, announcing their myriad troubles in a chorus of pain and complaint, one following another as Sugar scrolls through the contents of her inbox before settling on a letter to which she will respond.
As Sugar, Susi Damilano (also SF Playhouse's producing director) comes across as the top personal trainer at the empathy gym (something SF Playhouse likes to call itself, a place "where we come to practice our powers of compassion"), so invested is she in the role and in embodying the empathy Sugar is able to call up for her correspondents. I've been a regular at SF Playhouse for many years (dating back to when they were in the Sutter Street space currently occupied by Custom Made Theatre) and know Susi well, so it was quite surprising to find myself forgetting it was her on stage, so completely does she shed herself to become Sugar. Damilano lets us see the doubts Sugar has about her skills, especially after she takes the job seemingly on a whim. When it's clear being Sugar will entail a much deeper emotional commitment than first imagined, that stress also registers on Damilano's faceindeed, in her entire being.
Damilano gets good support from her scene partners, each of whom is required to play many different roles: men and women, young and old, gay and straight. All three are up to the task, but Jomar Tagatac has several terrific moments, my favorite of which is when he is a sassy teen girl looking for Sugar's advice: a tilt of his head and flip of (imaginary, for Tagatac shaves his head) hair and suddenly he is a high schooler we all recognize, the popular girl who's not nearly so confident as she wants us to believe.
And yet, despite these nicely crafted performances, which play out on a lovely set by scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott (that makes it look like Sugar lives in a forest of aluminum bamboo), and the way Strayed plumbs the tragedies of her life in order to identify with the suffering of her readers, Tiny Beautiful Things failed to resonate with me. It's not a bad playthough it's not a good one, either, failing to offer a narrative arc other than "here are some problems some people had, and what one person thought they should do about them." Ultimately, it feels a bit like a cross between a production by Bay Area company Word for Word (who stage short stories in which every word is spoken on stage, as well as acted out) and the TV show "Cops," which captures people in some of the worst moments of their lives.
Ultimately, try as it mightand it tries mightilyTiny Beautiful Things failed to worm its way into my heart. But your mileage may vary and it may be just the lift you need in your life.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs through March 7, 2020, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$125, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.