BWW Reviews: Studio Explores Grimmer Side of Life with WATER BY THE SPOONFUL
Family-centered dramas are not exactly at a premium this theatre season in Washington, DC, but there's probably a good reason for that. There's often a compelling story at the heart of these plays that nearly everyone in an audience can relate to at some level. So too are there likely numerous chances for local actors to sink their teeth into rich, compelling, and complex roles, and ample opportunities to highlight the conflict that emerges when any two people get in a room together - sometimes magnified when they happen to be related.
So, here we are again - but this time with a Latin twist. Studio Theatre is offering the DC premiere of Quiara Alegría Hudes' Water by the Spoonful - one of three plays exploring the predicament of the Philadelphia-based (by way of Puerto Rico) Ortiz family. First performed as a commissioned piece at Hartford Stage in 2011, it went on to have a successful, critically-acclaimed run Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in 2013 and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Whichever way you slice it, it's always a good thing for the DC community to get to experience this kind of award-winning play at a theatre that's known to have productions that offer an exemplary mix of solid casting, production values, and direction. This production is no exception.
With Water by the Spoonful, the award-winning Hudes takes on some worthy issues that have likely come into play in our lives or the lives of people we know - addiction, grief when a loved one dies, the challenges faced by returning war veterans, questions of what it really means to be a parent, family pressures and many more. Adding in a discussion of the interconnectedness of humanity across the globe in the Internet age and some attention to the importance of the familial structure in the Latino community, we are left with a play that says a lot about a lot of stuff in an elegant way thanks to Hudes' adeptness with imagery and language, but ultimately is less than satisfying as a single script.
Returned-war-vet-turned-Subway-employee-and-sometimes-actor Elliot (Arturo Soria) is dealing with the impending loss of his caring, and much loved mother at the same time he is still physically and emotionally reeling from his time in Iraq six years earlier (and - as we later learn - a brief time following his war injury when he was addicted to painkillers). A nightmare about his encounter with an Iraqi man (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) continues to haunt him. His educated, jazz-loving cousin Yazmin (Gisela Chípe) stands by supportive, but also concerned about how Elliot will deal with this situation.
Seemingly a world away (though not really) a recovering addict, known by her Internet chatboard user name "Haikumom" (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), plays a supportive role to other recovering addicts through online communication as a website administrator. Among the group, there's the professionally, but not personally successful "Fountainhead" (Tim Getman), and the socially isolated Chutes&Ladders (Vincent J. Brown) and Orangutan (Amy Kim Waschke).
Elliot learns of his mom's soon-to-be death via a text from his father. "Haikumom" reads of this death in the newspaper as she monitors her chatboard discussions online. Suddenly, more linkages emerge and we realize that some of the characters don't just share a common challenge of narcotics addiction and the related relationship challenges that co-present themselves with addiction. There's a biological family bond at play between "Haikumom" and Elliot, even if Elliot would like to forget it. Yet, it's all brought to the forefront with "Mama's" death. "Haikumom" must again revisit her decision to give Elliot to her sister when she realized she could not care for him. The decision still haunts her, explained by the fact that she's tried to create a world for herself that consists of caring for strangers at their darkest moments. She is in constant search of redemption. Elliot must now - in the absence of his adopted mom - deal with his feelings about his biological mom who survived, as well as his own direction. At the same time, the chatboard regulars are dealing with their own questions of family identity, bonds, and relationships and the messy web of lies, promises, guilt, and pain emerges with addiction. It's far from simple much like the jazz music Yazmin loves so much. They are also confronted with fears of relapse. Through it all, they must grapple with what they need to do for themselves and others. Is forgiveness possible and can they make it through?
When Hudes focuses on the challenges that "Haikumom" (who we later learn is named Odessa in real life) and Elliot face, we have a compelling story of two people on two different paths that started out as one, struggling with what's happening now and what's happened in the past and trying to move on. Yet, when we get stuck on the seemingly never-ending interactions of the addicts on "Haikumom's" website to convey broader themes in the Ortiz family story, we run into focusing issues. The conversations between Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders are particularly tedious and akin to being hit over the head with a sledge hammer about the idea that family, relationships, and addiction don't go together very well even if the messages are relevant to the plight Odessa and Elliot face. If Hudes chose to use the chatboard discussion device in a less heavy-handed and over-powering way I might have felt differently.
In sum, while trying to do so much, she diluted the power of what is in essence a very simple story of human bond, persistence, and forgiveness.
This is not to say, of course, that the Studio production of the play isn't exceptional. I must emphasize that it is.
Every actor is exceedingly adept at showing his/her character's pain, but determination to get through it all. Balancing humor with dramatic acting, they let the raw humanness of the characters shine through. There's not a weak link in the bunch.
Director KJ Sanchez does well to focus the story as best is possible and keep the pacing brisk even if the most tedious moments of Internet-based dialogue. Her intimate staging approach - using Dan Conway's minimalist and rugged sets to the best advantage possible - is highly effective to demonstrate the distance and closeness between all characters in all situations they face. She brings the audience into the action to witness the chaos that unfolds without barriers. Powerful images, in particular, emerge in the final scenes and Yazmin and Elliot celebrate his adopted mother's life as Odessa struggles to overcome her own difficult situation with the help of a stranger. Michael Giannitti's subtle lighting design, Christopher Baine's sound design, and Richard Livingston Huntley's percussion designs are also highly effective in highlighting the uncertainty, heaviness, and intense emotions at play in the story.
A first-rate production indeed!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including an intermission.
Pictured: Tim Getman (Fountainhead), Amy Kim Waschke (Orangutan), Arturo Soria (Elliot Ortiz),
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Haikumom), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (A Ghost), and Vincent J. Brown (Chutes&Ladders).
Photo Credit: Teddy Wolff.