Water by the Spoonful is the 2012 Pulitzer Prize–winning middle chapter of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy of dramas centered, to varying degrees, around Elliot Ortiz, a Marine veteran of the 21st century Iraq war now returned to his native North Philadelphia with chronic nightmares and a chronic leg injury. Between acting gigs in commercials, Elliot works as a “sandwich artist” at Subway, perhaps a lowlier station in Philly than in a city less celebrated for its indigenous hoagies.
The play’s prequel, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, hasn’t been seen around here since GALA Hispanic Theatre did it seven years ago. Fortunately, you need not know that one to be captivated by director KJ Sanchez’s rich, arresting production of its rangy follow-up. In Spoonful’s first half, Elliot and his Swarthmore music–professor cousin, Yazmin, prepare to say goodbye to their ailing grandmother, who reared Elliot, while a parallel story unfolds among the users of a chatroom for, well, users—specifically, crack addicts reaching across the void of cyberspace to try to keep themselves and one another clean.
The way Sanchez sustains visual interest in conversations set in the digital realm is her enthralling production’s cleverest device. It isn’t exactly The Matrix, but it’s clear and effective: Each character’s username and avatar is projected onto the distressed back wall of Studio’s Metheny Theatre when they log in. (A wrought-iron staircase to nowhere propped against that wall is the dominant feature of Dan Conway’s minimalistic set; lighting designer Michael Giannitti suggests the globetrotting locales of Philly, San Diego, Pureto Rico, and Japan through the distinct palettes he assigns to each.)
The chatroom users have bits of individual business to perform as they speak, but as the exchanges heat up they begin to see and interact with one another onstage. “Haikumom” is the patient, loving moderator, and a quick draw with the “Censored!” command when the others—middle-aged federal functionary “Chutes&Ladders”; youngish Japanese-American seeker “Orangutan”; and the comfortably unemployed “Fountainhead,” the perfect handle for a guy who founded and sold a tech company and now hides his crack habit from his wife and son—become aggressive. Like so many virtual identities, her serene, Haiku-composing persona contrasts sharply with her fragmented IRL existence, especially once her connection to the other set of characters comes into focus.
There’s a fairly-easy-to-decode MacGuffin introduced early on, when Elliot asks a professor to translate an Arabic phrase that’s echoed in his head for years. But that turns out to be a less powerful narrative engine than our curiosity about how the parallel stories will eventually intersect. This is all presaged by Yazmin’s lecture to her class about John Coltrane’s use of dissonance (we hear snippets of his Ascension over the scene changes), a bit of metacommentary that’s less distracting than Hudes’ infrequent digressions into poetry. “I want to grab the sky and smash it into pieces!” Yazmin says later, as though Google Translate mauled her words on their way out of her mouth. Gisela Chipe is saddled with the rough job of making these awkward lines sound natural in what’s mostly a plain-speech text, which may be why her performance feels shakier than the others. As an academic among blue-collar types, she’s also a conspicuous stand-in for the playwright, who like Yazmin is a second-generation Puerto Rican American with formal training in music. But dissonance can cover up a bum note or two, and there aren’t many of those.
The seven-member cast is strong and sympathetic, none more than Studio Theatre veteran (and longtime employee) Vincent J. Brown as Chutes&Ladders, who hides his pain over his son’s estrangement under a thick armor of sarcasm. His deepening connection to Orangutan (Amy Kim Waschke, credibly needy), who’s moved to Japan to track down her biological parents, just avoids curdling into rom-com fantasy. A tougher (albeit equally unlikely) relationship develops between Fountainhead and Haikumom once they take they risk step of conferring face-to-face, driven more by desperation than the romantic optimism that binds the other pair. That the actors playing Fountainhead and Haikumom, Tim Getman and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, are real-life spouses makes the tentative, then maternal nature of their interaction seem all the more remarkable. Getman is playing his actual age, give or take, while Fernandez-Coffey, convincingly made older and unbeautified, vanishes once again into her role, this time as a woman who has lost everything to addiction.
Arturo Soria makes a sturdy, likeable Elliot, a character who tests our empathy only when he can’t find any for a character who wronged him horribly years earlier. His high-strung affability is as much a role he’s trying to live up to as the caustic online alter-egos the crackheads (they use the term freely among themselves to keep themselves honest) rely on to keep their cravings at bay.
Hudes’ scenario is a deftly arranged equation of suffering, an examination of whose hurt trumps whose. It feels slightly schematic only in hindsight. While you’re watching, it has the emotional sweep of the Coltrane experiments that purportedly inspired it. (The other two plays in the trilogy have specific musical analogues, too.) That evocative title—Water by the Spoonful—eventually gets a harrowing and literal definition, one it doesn’t need. It’s apparent enough that these damaged characters thirst for love, but can take their sustenance only drop by agonizing drop.