The brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning play, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is the second in a planned trilogy by Quiara Alegria Hudes. I have not seen or read the first play in the series, ELLIOTT, A SOLDIER'S FUGUE. That title suggests that music plays an important role. It does in this play as well. Yaz (Zabrina Guevara) is an adjunct instructor in music at Swarthmore, teaching jazz, particularly the music of John Coltrane. She gives an eloquent lecture on the moment when she discovered the importance of dissonance in music. Indeed, the play is an eloquent meditation on dissonance and harmony in the relationships of some spiritually maimed people. Yaz's closest relationship is with her cousin, Elliott (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran haunted by the first man he killed. After a serious injury to his leg, Elliott was briefly addicted to pain killers (addiction is one of the major dissonances in the play). He is also spiritually disfigured by his inability to forgive his mother, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), a former crack addict, for causing the death of his younger sister and giving him up for adoption by his aunt and uncle. Now Odessa, having overcome her addiction, runs a website for other recovering crack addicts frequented by a motley assortment of men and women. While her son hates her, other addicts depend on her for their survival. Odessa may have lost her biological son but by the end of the play, she has found an unlikely surrogate son. The extended family loses one matriarch but gains another. Life is cyclical, but ultimately positive.
Recounting the play's narrative makes it sound more melodramatic than it is. We watch connections being made between people fighting for their survival. We also see some acts of real cruelty on the part of characters who are otherwise sympathetic and acts of mercy and kindness from characters who can be cruel. In the best sense, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a play about fallen people seeking redemption. Hudes obviously loves her characters. She is also a master of dramatic form. The play begins with a series of scenes that don't seem to bear any relationship to each other. Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come together in ways that are both surprising and justified. Her language ranges from the prosaic to the eloquent. Hudes isn't afraid to give her characters long expository speeches, but they all ring true. There is also visual poetry, particularly as the play moves toward its denouement.
Davis McCallum has created the perfect production for this play. Internet scenes are getting to be something of a cliche, but there is a visual flow, almost a choreography to the ones in WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. The settings (Neil Patel) are more evocative than realistic for a play that ranges from Philadelphia to Tokyo to Puerto Rico to the world of nightmares. One can't speak highly enough of the cast. In addition to the excellent Ms. Guevara, Ms. Colon-Zayas and Mr. Riesco, there are fine performances from Frankie Faison, Sue Jean Kim and particularly Bill Heck as members of Odessa's internet support group. While the play for the most part seems to isolate its characters from one another, the actors create a finely tuned ensemble.
In a recent post, I criticized Amy Herzog's plays (critically acclaimed, so I'm in the minority here) for being thin, for not resonating beyond what we see. They are sketches rather than paintings. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a grand canvas capturing much more than any simple recounting can capture. It's a loving, poetic picture of the complexities of human nature.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. Second Stage Tony Kiser Theatre. December 23, 2012.