KPFA theatre critic Richard Wolinsky reviews “Tiny Beautiful Things,” based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, at San Francisco Playhouse through March 7, 2020.
Text of review:
The writer Cheryl Strayed hit the best-seller charts in 2012 with her memoir, Wild, the story of a trek she took over the length of the Pacific Coast Trail in 1995. It was her second book. Her first, Torch, a novel had been published six years earlier to good reviews and little national notice.
But it was in 2010, struggling as a free lance writer, that she was offered the job – not really a job because there was no pay involved – to take over an advice column, Dear Sugar, for the Rumpus on-line literary magazine, which she then wrote for two years.
Those columns were collected in the book, Tiny Beautiful Things, which has been adapted by Nia Vardalos into a theatre piece now at San Francisco Playhouse through March 7th directed by Bill English.
After a brief opening in which Cheryl gets the gig, the rest of the play consists of questions from the Rumpus audience, and Cheryl’s extended autobiographical responses, which almost serve as parables to the conundrums she’s been presented with. Some questions are short, with brief answers, and some are longer, and deal with weighty issues like grief suicide, sexual abuse, not to mention, of course, queries involving relationships.
Without a through line, a plot, or really, any characters other than Cheryl Strayed, there’s very little forward movement to the story, if there’s even a story.
Thus it’s up to the actors, the director, and the design of a production to keep things moving, and most of the way, San Francisco Playhouse does just that. Susi Damilano as Cheryl does her part, in a warm and witty performance that often transcends material that could easily become mawkish or sentimental. She is ably assisted by Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor and Jomar Tagatec as all her interlocutors – who switch gender, age and character in the blink of an eye. Constant movement by all four actors inside a busy high-tech space gives the audience a roving eye, absolutely necessary when the text itself only consists of questions and answers.
It helps, of course, that Cheryl Strayed is such a good writer, and that the stories of her life, and how she responds to her Rumpus readers, are of themselves both interesting and profound. She’s no advice expert, she has no training, and even admits that maybe, some of her advice is wrong. But Tiny Beautiful Things is never less than honest, and even though the play starts to lag just past the one hour mark, it’s still a lovely and often moving night in the theatre.
Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed, directed by Bill English, plays at San Francisco Playhouse through March 7. For more information, go to sfplayhouse.org. I’m Richard Wolinsky on Bay Area theater for KPFA.