Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Water by the Spoonful, not only captures a rich and dynamic portrayal of seemingly overwhelming struggles in American life but it does so with beauty and grace. And, the Old Globe has mounted a production (its twenty-sixth in a line of Pulitzer Prize recipients) that matches the play’s elegance in dramatic construction, use of language, and insight into the human psyche.
The second of a trilogy (the first being Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, which ion Theatre produced in 2010, and the third being The Happiest Song Plays Last, which was produced recently off-Broadway), Water by the Spoonful follows Elliot (Rey Lucas), a recently discharged Marine who served in Iraq, back to his home in Philadelphia. Elliot, who is haunted by the ghost (M. Keala Milles, Jr.) of the first man he killed in Iraq, is also trying to cope with the death of his aunt, who raised him, and the reappearance of a woman from his past, Odessa (Marilyn Torres). Odessa has been recovering from an addiction to crack cocaine, and using the handle Haikumom she has been moderating an Internet forum for recovering addicts. Among those who participate in her forum are a woman of Japanese ancestry whose handle is Orangutan (Ruibo Qian), an African-American man whose handle is Chutes&Ladders (Keith Randolph Smith), and a newcomer named John (Robert Eli) who adopts the handle Fountainhead.
Along with his close and trusted cousin, Yazmin (Sarah Nina Hayon), Elliot tries to “marine” his way through the landmines of moving back to civilian society while at the same time suffering maddening bouts of grief. Using a parallel psychology, John tries to be true to the philosophy behind his handle. He wants recovering addicts to tell him how to stop using, but he also wants to compartmentalize his grief and “man” his way through the myriad landmines that recovery entails. Orangutan, whose recovery is fragile, and Chutes&Ladders, whose life is more stable but still not anything to write home about, give Fountainhead a hard time. Haikumom, on the other hand, is more inviting, arranging to meet face-to-face with John and gently confronting him about his denial. At the same time Odessa is facing anger and emotional rejection from Elliot, as well as pressure to help the family to fulfill the saintly “Mami Ginny’s” wishes for her funeral and scattering of her ashes.
It is only through acceptance of the love available to them that both Elliot and John are able to find their way forward.
There isn’t a misstep in Ms. Hudes’ portrayal of a close but wounded family whose Puerto Rican cultural customs influence their beliefs and actions despite their many years living on the mainland. Nor is there any misstep in portraying the agonies of recovery from a powerfully addictive substance. The dynamics of the recovery chatroom are as believable as it gets.
Each character has a distinctive dramatic arc, and director Edward Torres has carefully coached not only the individual arcs but how they fit together to advance the arc of the play as a whole. Nothing is overplayed, nothing seems false, and the catharsis experienced by cast and audience alike is a genuinely-felt one.
The White Theatre’s configuration is both a help and a hindrance. It’s a help, because it brings the audience in close for maximum effect. It’s a hindrance because Ralph Funicello’s set pieces have to do double and triple duty and occasionally seem like they’re in the way. But, Mr. Funicello, lighting designer Jesse Klug, and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel have come up with an ingenious way of portraying the chatroom that works exceedingly well.
Still, I’d like to have seen the play staged in a theater equipped with a proscenium.
It is interesting that two of our most promising young playwrights, Ms. Hudes, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, have both made their marks writing trilogies – and that the Old Globe in both cases has chosen to stage the middle part of each trilogy (in Mr. McCraney’s case it was last season’s The Brothers Size). Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast: the middle part might well be the meatiest, and if you’re only going to present one of the plays meaty is probably best. But, wouldn’t it have been fun to have different theatre companies producing the three plays simultaneously so that audiences could experience the entire scope of the vision created by these fine authors?