Cheryl Strayed’s Electrifying Advice to Lovelorn, Grief Stricken
by Hannah Yurke
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is raw, captivating and true to Cheryl Strayed’s book. Nia Vardalos’ adaptation takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride from laughter to tears.
We start off gently, when Cheryl (wonderful Susi Damilano) inherits the job of unpaid advice columnist, at The Rumpus magazine. As the wine quaffing “Sugar,” she grapples with her readers’ insurmountable dilemmas: from “I’m in 8th grade and I want to know how to make friends”; to “I’m married, but I’ve got a crush on someone else, what should I do?; to“WTF WTF WTF?”
Susi Damilano charms us with such down to earth humanity, it’s impossible not to like her. Cheryl Strayed’s lifetime of hard knocks–grief from the loss of her mother, her divorce, and her plunge into drug addiction–enable her to pinpoint aspects of grief I didn’t even know I felt, when I lost my own mother too young. As Sugar says to her correspondents, “Together we’ve created a safe place for all of us.”
Kina Kantor, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Jomar Tagatac do a marvelous job of assuming the voices of her Letter-writers. They are frequently as vulnerable as Sugar, herself. One writer, Mark Phillips, sheds tears as he movingly plays a grieving father.
While Strayed doesn’t always offer clear cut solutions, she sits with her readers’ pain, helping them find their own way.
We visit darker places and Cheryl’s advice gets bolder, as she draws on her own hard won insights. She talks unabashedly about her traumatic childhood sexual abuse, and her father’s rejection. Her gritty humanity gives her power to soothe the suffering of others.
Jaqueline Scott’s set contributes an eye catching backdrop where chrome pipes loom over kitchen cabinets and a breakfast bar. They could be the legs of bar stools set loose to fly. Like Sugar, that abstract sculpture reflects ordinary life gone wild. As our insight increases, cold blue-tinged lighting gradually warms the space.
Director Bill English shapes “Tiny Beautiful Things” into an electric and compassionate whole. All in all, it’s a gut punching and heartwarming experience, shedding empathy and shining light onto some of the dark recesses of everyday human suffering. Highly recommended.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed, adapted or the stage by Nia Vardalos, directed by Bill English, at San Francisco Playhouse, through Saturday, March 7, 2020. Info: sfplayhouse.org
Cast: Susi Damilano, Kina Kantor, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Jomar Tagatac.
Banner photo: Jomar Tagatac & Susi Damilano. Photos by Jessica Palopoli