BWW Reviews: WATER BY THE SPOONFUL at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
It may take a few minutes for a viewer to get his bearings within the world of WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. The canvas laid out by playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes stretches from Puerto Rico to San Diego, from Philadelphia to Japan. Characters go by their chatroom handles, and their relationships to each other - even among family members who meet face to face - are complicated and are not immediately made clear.
So it goes. Life is messy that way and the Internet has both opened up the world and sealed it off. But stay the course with this play, and you'll reap abundant rewards. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL deservedly took the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and will likely start sprouting up at regional theaters throughout the country. The production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival directed by Shishir Kurup hits every correct note, inducing squirms, throat lumps and - unless you're made of stone - even the occasional tear.
Hudes's two stories, told in parallel before they inevitably intersect, chart a pair of families who share a common member. Elliot Ortiz (Daniel Jose Molina), an Iraqi War veteran now working at Subway in Philadelphia shares a tight bond with his cousin Yazmin (Nancy Rodriguez), an adjunct music instructor. Shortly into the play, the cousins learn that Ginny, a beloved aunt who raised Elliot has succumbed to cancer. Since Ginny was also the bedrock not only of the Ortiz family but of this Puerto Rican community, her death will bring this family together. Most of it, anyway. Hudes (who wrote the book for IN THE HEIGHTS) knows this territory so well and is such an insightful writer that she allows us to know Ginny even though we never meet her.
Odessa (Ginny's sister) is a different kind of matriarch. She administers a chat room for recovering crack addicts like herself. Calling herself Haikumom, Odessa (Vilma Silva) lives in squalor, and pecks away at the keyboard of a vastly outdated computer, dispensing encouragement, rebukes and censorship when her chatroom brood get too profane or confrontational.
The recovery ranks include Orangutan, (Celeste Den), a young woman teaching English in Japan, Chutes & Ladders (Bruce A. Young), a help desk agent for the IRS in San Diego and Fountainhead (Barret O'Brien), a former tech millionaire who logs on to the chatroom toasting a single day of sobriety, thereby incurring the wrath of the longtimers who think the man is a scammer. Odessa doesn't. Destitute though she is, Odessa will even go out to meet him face to face, recovery brochures and sponsorship offers in hand.
The Thomas Stage has been set in three-quarter round with the audience flanking a series of large square platforms. During the online chats, there are no keyboards, and we don't see the words typed on screen (a la Patrick Marber's "Closer.") Characters stay on their various islands and talk to each other across cyberspace, occasionally even crossing platforms to get literally up in another person's face. Kurup's staging in this already intimate - but not claustrophobic - venue keeps the play's urgency, and the stakes high, especially when someone faces an inevitable crisis. We're observing a small sample size of what would be a larger chatroom community, but the care that these damaged people feel for each other is more than evident. None of them have ever met each other, but after letting their guard down on a regular basis in cyberspace they know each other so very well.
The "got your back" makeup applies to the Ortiz family as well, so much so that Yazmin and Elliot track down Odessa to try to get her to contribute to the cost of flowers at Ginny's funeral, an encounter with some awful repercussions. Elliot, with some skeletons of his own, is the last person to be passing judgment on Odessa or any of her cyber recovery mates, but as previously notes, life can be seriously sordid regardless of whether you choose to own your baggage.
Molina and Rodriguez as the cousins who get each other are both excellent, the former haunted and practically choking on his own bitterness. Den's Orangutan and Young's Chutes & Ladders are working a nice generation-spanning chemistry. Both are characters who are at risk: the longtime sober Chutes & Ladders afraid to deviate from a routine no matter how monotonous it might become and the precocious Orangutan who will cross the world for meaningful human contact. Or they might be OK after all if they can just find a way to physically reach each other.
Ultimately WATER BY THE SPOONFUL proves to be Odessa's play, damaged and closed off as this character is. Silva is a petite woman whose thrift store clothes threaten to envelop her. When you see her interacting first with O'Brien's Fountain head and later, uncomfortably, with her nephew and niece, you realize that the woman can only truly function within the protective cocoon of being Haikumom...or with people who are even worse off than she is.
To Hudes, that won't cut it. People need each other. That the playwright can work in intelligent ruminations on John Coltrane, post-traumatic stress disorder, the Puerto Rican community and, why not, the workings of the human heart, marks her as a playwright to be watched. But we kinda already knew that.
Photo Credit: Jenny Graham