Lyric Stage's "Water by the Spoonful": Medicine by the Byteful

The current Lyric Stage production of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, “Water by the Spoonful”, by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Tony winner for “In the Heights” in 2008) presents us with playwriting at its most profound and live theater performance at its most moving. This powerful play makes it clear that, while our lives may be dissimilar on the surface, we all follow remarkably parallel paths as we wrestle with the challenges in our everyday lives. This second in her trilogy of works based on the real life experiences of her cousin Elliot, a veteran of the war in Iraq, (the other two being “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue”, a finalist for Pulitzer a few years ago, and “The Happiest Song Plays Last”, recently premiered in Chicago), proves that Hudes is a literary force to be reckoned with, a major new star in the theatrical firmament. This work continues the story she began in her first play, as Elliot Ortiz (Gabriel Rodriguez, seen last season in New Rep’s remarkable “Amadeus”) returns home to his fractured family in Philadelphia (of Puerto Rican descent, as is the playwright herself), struggling to find his place in the what’s left of his world. At the same time, a group of drug addicts in recovery are shown interacting via an online chat room as they too seek, as Hudes puts it, “community… acceptance…connection…redemption, even if it’s only drop by drop”.

While Elliott finds varying degrees of support from family, especially his cousin Yazmin (Sasha Castroverde) and mother Odessa (Mariela Lopez-Ponce), the three chat members, known by their online monikers, Fountainhead (Gabriel Kuttner), who hides his addiction from his wife and even from himself, Chutes&Ladders (Johnny Lee Davenport) who has lost contact with his family and bemoans that he is “fifty years old on a good day”, and Orangutan (Theresa Nguyen), who has chosen to flee to the country of her birth, all find support in their literal interconnectedness. Odessa happens to lead the chat room activity, but she has her own struggle with recovery, as Elliott notes “we all have skeletons, but, yeah, she’s an archeological dig”. By the time we’ve grown to know these characters better, it seems that the regeneration and renewal they all seek is just around the corner, but as Odessa says to Elliott, “staying sober is like dancing on a mine field”.

As described by A. Nora Long, Lyric’s Associate Artistic Director, they “wrestle with loss, identity, poverty, family, faith and fear; drug addiction is only part of that struggle”. They all, individually and collectively, face these real issues, some more effectively than others. As Chutes&Ladders puts it, there are only two rules: “don’t use, and don’t hurt anyone”, but this is easier said than done. What they all aspire to do is to learn how to live, all over again. At one point the question is asked whether they believe in God, in miracles, or at the very least, in action. At another point assurance is given to Elliott: “I know you can do this, but I know you can’t do it alone”. Yet his final decision regarding his present role (a “maker of sandwiches”) and his future dream (to have an acting career) will mirror the lives of the online family, as he moves from caregiver to reconciliation with family to a drastic change in locale. As he says at the end of the play, “If I stay…I’m gonna become one of them; I’m already halfway there… you’ve got armor, you’ve got ideas, but I don’t.” Rodriguez is especially touching in this scene. This may seem all too somber, but there are many touches of humor as well. To the question as to what his native tongue is, Elliott answers “Spanglish”, and one of the group sends another member who can’t swim a pair of water wings. (After all, Hudes’ middle name means “joy”). But the serious message is that just as water by the spoonful every five minutes prevents dehydration, baby steps in recovery are equally small and powerful.

The underlying dissonance these people endure is effectively, even unforgettably driven home by every member of this stellar cast (including Zaven Ovian, in several supporting roles) under the meticulous direction of Scott Edmiston. The technical staff is also at the top of their game, from Sound Design & Composing by Dewey Dellay (utilizing, per the author’s instructions, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Ascension”), to Scenic Design by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, to Costumer Design by Elisabetta Polito and Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, with the exception of brief scenes with overhead lighting that obscured the actors’ facial expressions.

This is a stunning, profoundly memorable production, nothing short of a dramatic triumph for Lyric Stage. As one of Hudes’ mentors, playwright Paula Vogel, once asked: “How many plays make us long for grace?”. This is surely one of them.

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