There’s something religious about advice columns. From AITA (Am I the asshole?) Reddit threads to outdated Yahoo! Answers to Dan Savage’s weekly sex guidance, it seems that everyone is looking for a little salvation. In Tiny Beautiful Things, a play adapted by Nia Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s self-help book of the same name, an anonymous advice columnist (Susi Damilano) pens letters to her readers online. Some address their hopes and fears to a figure dubbed “Sugar,” seeking direction; one man just sends Sugar “WHAT THE FUCK? WHAT THE FUCK? WHAT THE FUCK?” repeatedly; others clamor at her for a hint of her real identity.
“Not knowing my name allows you to have a more pure vision of me,” Sugar says, referring to a vision that isn’t defined by appearances. I suppose that’s part of the process of creating a God figure — purity. Not necessarily in the do-only-good sense; Sugar admits admits to her flaws with pride, knowing that her rough patches help make her who she is. It’s a process that combines imagination and idolization to make something to believe in.
Maybe that’s the allure of anonymous Internet advice columns, and why some people skeptical about the illusion are so fixated on their fissures, while others are happy not knowing anything about the person they’ve chosen to spill all their deepest feelings to: Identity can be baggage. Maybe that’s why so many people feel at liberty to give out potentially life-changing advice under anonymous personas — why people willingly submit to Judgement Day on Reddit.
But we’re all human, and as aforementioned, we’re all flawed — including Sugar. That means her advice isn’t always perfect. In one letter, a trans man tells Sugar that his family initially rejected him and his identity. He left home, building a life of his own miles away. Years later, they wrote him an email admitting their mistake, and asking for forgiveness. He asks Sugar what to do: Should he go on with his new life as if nothing happened? Or should he forgive them in favor of reconciliation?
Sugar recommends forgiveness, but in giving this well-intentioned advice, equates two very different situations: his family rejecting him for being trans and him rejecting his family because of this past trauma. Somehow she implies that not forgiving his formerly transphobic family is the same thing as being transphobic. (It’s not.)
It’s a crack in Sugar’s perfectly imperfect persona that the characters on stage don’t realize. They rarely push back. The caution is in understanding that Sugar’s advice column is not absolute moral truth, an important awareness when Tiny Beautiful Things doesn’t give much room for anything else. The play is structured around four actors: Sugar and three nameless characters who switch through different personas as they recite each new letter. Sugar responds to them, but they’re not allowed to reply, as is the nature of an advice column. Instead, each of Sugar’s letters are presented like grandiose truths — like Sugar carries the omniscient power to dole them out.
She doesn’t, and it’s even unclear how much power she has to carry this play. Tiny Beautiful Things has been marketed as a real tearjerker — the San Francisco Playhouse keeps tissues right outside of the theater for this reason. But because it’s structured like an advice column from a person who seems assured and confident in all her guidance, there’s no real narrative arc or character growth. Just letters after letters after letters — a great thing if you’re ready to fall down an advice column rabbit hole, but less so if you’re looking for a real story.
Tiny Beautiful Things, through March 7, at SF Playhouse, 450 Post St. $40-100; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.