When children have a long stretch with a fever or illness they can become dehydrated. To re-hydrate them requires a teaspoon of water or soup every five minutes. Perhaps the title of Quiara Alegria Hudes’s soul-searching drama, Water by the Spoonful, serves as a metaphor for all people struggling with questions of recovery, illness, loneliness, trauma, identity, and loss. We all can use care, love, attention, and connection in small doses—all the time.
Under Julie Beckman’s direction and Montana Tippett’s set design the rhythms of the play alternately constrict and expand like something alive and musical. We focus in first on a particular scene, and then the action spreads out to include the whole internet, the world wide web. Back and forth. The seats nearly encircle the set, which consists of platforms crisscrossing the stage, wooden cubes painted in a camouflage pattern of sorts with mostly washed out colors like weather-worn graffitti. A desk in one corner, a table, a couple of benches and a raised platform or two. The palette runs gray and flat, much as the characters in recovery tend to describe sobriety. The floor is covered with crinkled background paper with clear glass beads scattered about which evoke the impression of light reflecting off ripples or waves in a pond.
The core action ricochets off the struggles of Elliot (Jany Bacallao) to escape the traumatic consequences being a child from a poor family in a poor neighborhood and flashbacks from serving in the Iraq War. Water is the middle play in Hudes’s Elliot trilogy. The first play, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, reveals the generational impact that wartime service has on the Ortiz family. The third play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, follows Elliot and his cousin as they find their destinies. These plays are well-crafted—Elliot was a Pulitizer Prize finalist and Water won this prize of Hudes in 2012. They are dramas infused with musical references and themes, namely, fugues, free jazz, and traditional Puerto Rican folk music.
Bacallao brings the zero-to-sixty punchiness of untreated trauma to this performance. As his more mainstream cousin Yasmin, (Yesenia Iglesias) has the tough job in the Ortiz family of being the one who is most responsible and the gravitational force that keeps it from flying further apart. As his biological mom, Rose Cano as Odessa lost her battle to avoid becoming a crack addict, then lost her family, then found a new path through recovery, Buddhism and online recovery chat rooms. She even has the responsible role of moderator in one such room using Haikumom as her alias.
As the play opens, Elliot is discussing the care arrangements for his dying aunt and with his cousin. This aunt raised him after his biological mother, Odessa, simply walked out of her responsibilities as a parent. We see him taking orders in a Subway restaurant while inner visions and flashbacks of traumas suffered while fighting in Iraq haunt him. Next, Odessa, upon awakening in a dreary Philadelphia efficiency apartment, fires up her computer and sends a morning greeting with a haiku to her fellow chatters scattered around the states and Japan. An online chat room poses an interesting performance challenge, as watching people type is not very dramatic. Odessa is the only chatter actually seen at a computer, the others, Chutes and Ladders (G. Valmont Thomas), Orangutan (Keiko Green), and Fountainhead (Jeff Allen Pierce) speak their lines with far more emotion that a flat screen ever conveys. They are talking but each longs to know if there are really other people out there. And how real their love is for each other. They act and react in their separate bubbles of experience. This has a Cubist feeling, like watching a shattered conversation trying to reassemble itself.
Odessa’s online community longs to make sense of their lives and how they had allowed or are currently allowing themselves to succumb to addiction. The highs of their addictions are balanced by the depths of their fears and vulnerabilities. Orangutan, after a 90 day absence from the chat room, re-emerges in Japan teaching English in the mornings and searching for her own birth family. When she invites Chutes and Ladders to come be her friend and join her in Japan, he has to deal with what it means to him to leave the hardened box he’s constructed to avoid relapse. Fountainhead blasts in as a over-confessing “I’m going to do this” blowhard who cannot seem to keep away from crack for even 24 hours. Meanwhile, what will Odessa do with the increasing pressures from her two “families”—her birth family needs her and her financial contribution to her sister’s memorial and her online family is fraying as it questions whether Fountainhead really belongs among them.
In conjunction with this production, eSe Theatro, Theatre22, and ACT Theatre are collaborating to bring this trilogy to Seattle audiences. Two play readings are scheduled. At 7:30 PM on Monday, November 2 (The Day of the Dead), there will be a reading of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue at West of Lenin. Then in Spanish on Veteran’s Day, Wednesday, November 11, Cano’s translation, Elliot, Guga de un Soladado, will be read at 7:30 PM at ACT Theatre.
Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alepria Hudes, directed by Julie Beckman. Runtime 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a single intermission. A Theatre22 production at West of Lenin, 203 N 36th St in Fremont. Thurs – Sat at 8 PM, Sunday matinee at 2 PM. Ticket info at www.theatre22.org/ Show runs October 23 – November 14.