SF Playhouse’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ isn’t so beautiful

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The San Francisco Playhouse tackles love in all forms through “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. The play follows the emotional journey of Sugar, a middle-aged mother who drinks too much wine, and her anonymous interactions with the readers of her advice column. 

Showcasing these stories through three performers continuously switching roles as the stories are read, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a challenging piece that starts off pleasing — until it begins to work against itself. The play shifts through what Sugar calls near the end “the things you don’t know (that) you don’t know,” namely the idea of healing being perfect and bridging relational gaps in understanding. All ideals are up for deliberation, and these notions become stuck in convoluted abstractions that lead to lost destinations rather than discoveries. 

Through onstage “Dear Sugar” readings, the play physically imagines the lives of Sugar’s unknown readers. The stage was supplemented by a bare framework of numerous tall metallic bamboo icicles forming the structure of Sugar’s home. Paired with the lighting, mild visual elements reflected somewhat vividly on the poles while the audience listened to the stories. But the poor contrast between Sugar’s austere home and the tender atmosphere neglects to illustrate the gravity and tension of the stories being told. After a couple of glances, the background design falls short, providing an unusual optical experience that fails to suitably fit the tone of the play. 

The extensive performances are noteworthy ventures, the cast having to quickly pivot in mood and physicality while switching between personalities. Jomar Tagatac especially shines in his depiction of transgender struggles, evoking the fragile relationship between one’s identity and heart with a soul-baring intensity. It’s stunning to witness the shifts as the actors meld into different personas, relying on the reappearance of certain characters to stress some more than others, eventually reaching a climactic conclusion.  

In its big-picture presentation, however, “Tiny Beautiful Things” floods the stage with story after story — some wishing to create deeper impressions over others — but lacks the emotional control over its audience to the point of causing a development of insensitivity to the obviously touching stories. Rather than guiding viewers fluidly from one “Dear Sugar” to the next, the play doesn’t seem to be structured in a polished manner, throwing tragedy after tragedy without regard for fine-drawn transitions. The textures of the personal recounts end up flat overall, making it grueling to stay attentive and entertained.

Despite the disappointing execution, the underpinnings of the plot are adequately poignant, insinuating intriguing questions of vulnerability. The play’s entire premise — random people asking a random person for help — clearly accentuates the human necessity of having someone to be honest and unguarded with. The question lies in where that willing soul can be found. 

One of the quintessential issues of the play is found in the contradicting script. Its often idyllic and forceful abstractions become tiresome advice, words that give the impression of significance through surface-level remarks. The tedious witticisms feign ingenuity and emotional intelligence, bordering on being cliché and obnoxious. When every line seems to exude verbosity, presenting itself as a long-winded harangue, the words lose their influence. 

“Tiny Beautiful Things” holds considerable potential, but becomes stumped by its delivery, attempting to say so much, and in the end, so little.

Cameron Opartkiettikul covers theater. Contact him at [email protected].