Empathy abounds in Tiny Beautiful Things at SF Playhouse

(l-r) Letter Writer #1 (Mark Anderson Phillips), (Jomar Tagatac),Letter Writer #3, Sugar (Susi Damilano), and Letter Writer #2 (Kina Kantor) share a moment in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Play: Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos. Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos. Directed by Bill English. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA. 415-677-9596, or www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2019-2020-season/tiny-beautiful-things.

January 28 through March 7, 2020.

Empathy abounds in Tiny Beautiful Things at SF Playhouse.

San Francisco Playhouse’s artistic director Bill English often reminds us in his pre-curtain speech that his group are dedicated to producing plays that induce the visceral emotional meanings of empathy referring to all of its synonyms. He has coined the phrase “empathy gym.” In keeping with that tradition they have selected the play Tiny Beautiful Things that is receiving a adroitly staged and well-acted production that deserved the standing ovation on opening night.

It is a semiautobiographical epistolary play told through the letters written to an on-line “Dear Sugar” (Susi Damilano) advice columnist by similarly anonymous individuals seeking guidance for a multitude of personal problems. Those seeking guidance are labelled as Letter Writers #1 (Mark Anderson Phillips), #2 (Kina Kanter) and #3 (Jomar Tagatac). It suggests that anonymity is paramount to writing an advice column thus preventing the writer and the recipient to “bare their souls.”

Cheryl Strayed took over the non-paying advice columnist job in 2010 two years before her seminal autobiographical book “Wild” became a smash hit. She had none of the traditional skills or background of an Ann Landers or Dear Abbey.  In fact her life could be fodder for the roles of the Letter Writers since her life was a constant survival of crises including heroin addiction and molestation by a grandfather. She often made reference to her personal journey in replying to the letters. Those answers at times were not advice but only philosophical replies based on her life experiences allowing the writer to seek his/her own decision. The meaning and necessity of love plays an integral role in the questions asked and answers given.

A few questions include one from an eight grader with an interpersonal problem, dysfunctional family situations, personal medical crisis, depression from various sources and even one who is unable to write a paragraph but lists 22 individual questions. Sugar replies in a similar vein that is an acting highlight between Phillips and Damilano.  Bill English uses the brilliant idiosyncrasy of having the characters on stage together without interaction action yet cogent to each other.

This play belongs to Susi Damiano as Sugar and she has magnificent support by Kanter, Tagatac and Phillips who are always on stage showing emotion relative to the question and to the reply given with simple and complex body movements and facial gestures.

The production design with a background to Sugar’s apartment of a symbolic “forest” of gleaming rods (Jacquelyn Scott) enhanced with atmospheric lighting (Michael Oesch) and sound cues (Teddy Hulsker) alone are worth a visit.

Running time is 90 minutes without an intermission.

CAST: Susi Damilano as Sugar, Kina Kantor as Letter Writer #2, Mark Anderson Phillips as Letter Writer #2 , and Jomar Tagatac as Letter Writer #3.

CREATIVE TEAM: Director, Bill English; Scenic Designer, Jacquelyn Scott; Costume Designer, Maggie Whitaker; Lighting Designer, Michael Oesch; Sound Designer, Teddy Hulfbsker; Properties Designer, Jacquelyn Scott; Stage Manager, Sara Sparks.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Letter Writer #1 (Mark Anderson Phillips), Letter Writer #3, Sugar (Susi Damilano), and Letter Writer #2 (Kina Kantor) share a moment in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse