How do you make an interesting theater piece out of a book that’s a collection of an advice columnist’s letters from, and to, her readers?
Such was the challenge taken on by actor-writer Nia Vardalos, who co-conceived (with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail) and adapted, for the stage, writer and memoirist Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book “Tiny Beautiful Things.” The book is based on her popular column “Dear Sugar,” which she wrote for the literary site The Rumpus beginning in 2010. (Vardalos herself created the role of Strayed at the Public Theater in New York.)
Now, San Francisco Playhouse artistic director Bill English offers a physically lively version of what is potentially a static event: a back-and-forth series of written exchanges between Strayed, or “Sugar,” and many lost and desperate souls.
“What is this love thing all about?” wonders “Confused.” A grief-stricken woman writes in after a miscarriage; one man’s constant refrain is an exhausted exclamation: “WTF?!” Readers demand to know who she is, but she won’t tell.
As varied as the script allows, this is a carefully paced production with peaks and (more often) valleys, played out on a set (by Jacquelyn Scott) that’s abstract, a sort of futuristic gym, all chrome and staircase to nowhere and platforms and slithery poles. The actors move constantly, up, down, sideways, interacting both directly and indirectly with Sugar (Susi Damilano) in all sorts of ways.
Sugar herself, in pajamas and slippers, is in her kitchen, complete with refrigerator and with cupboards hanging mid-air; she does everything from pouring herself a glass of wine to making peanut butter sandwiches, alternately, pacing, hovering over her laptop and leaning in closely toward her correspondents as she struggles to share with them her most personal experiences and deepest, most hard-won words of wisdom.
The words are indeed often quite wise, and some of the play works beautifully, both in the writing and in the staging. Strayed has lived a life full of anguish, love, adventure and joy, and in her Sugar columns she found a perfect outlet for her writerly talents, her natural empathy and her gift for “radical honesty.” It’s no wonder “Dear Sugar” was so loved.
In fact, a few of her advice columns presented here — one to a grieving father whose son has died, another in which she reveals a particularly disturbing experience as a child — are deeply affecting.
And three actors playing probably dozens or more readers — ages, genders and presumably ethnicities freely and inventively mixed — is a concept that works well, as played by Kina Kantor, Mark Anderson Phillips and especially the chameleon-like Jomar Tagatac.
But the normally very fine actor Damilano falters here; she hasn’t been able to find enough nuances and colors in the role, and relies mostly on smiling and laughing. In a few, but too few, impassioned monologues, she gets to reveal the depth of her actorly range, but mostly her bland sunniness results in a sentimental atmosphere.
Combined with a structure that is essentially monochromatic no matter how much it’s gussied up theatrically, this is a play that may have worked better in its original incarnation, on the page.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Kensington Park Hotel, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes March 7
Tickets: $35 to $123
Contact: (415) 677-9596, sfplayhouse.org