By ANNE SIEGEL
(Ashland, OREGON) – Water by the Spoonful is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014. The play initially appeared at the complex’s intimate Thomas Theatre, under the smart direction of Shishir Kurup. It was filmed in front of a live audience.
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the play won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It begins with two distinctly different stories told in parallel, before the events inevitably collide. With this in mind, audiences need to hang in there until the story’s strands begin to link up.
The play introduces us to Elliot Ortiz, an Iraq war veteran from Philadelphia, now employed as a fast-food worker. He chats with his cousin Yazmin (Yaz), an adjunct music instructor in a nearby college. One can see that Elliot walks with a limp, just one of the remnants he brings home from the war.
Soon afterwards, the cousins learn of the death of Ginny, an aunt who raised Elliot and was also a community activist. During Ginny’s memorial service, we see what an impressive role she has played in her community. One senses an overflowing crowd attending her service.
The playwright (who also wrote the book for “In the Heights”) knows these characters well. In fact, the slightly altered Elliot Ruiz is the playwright’s cousin. She notes that other characters resemble bits and pieces of people she has known throughout her life.
Ginny’s death is also a factor in the play’s other story, which centers on Odessa (Ginny’s sister, but we don’t learn that until later). Odessa lives alone in poverty, save for an obsolete computer. She administers a chat room for recovering crack addicts. An addict herself, Odessa monitors the chat room conversations and attempts to minimize confrontation between its members. Although the online dialogue is often poignant, it also lends itself to satire and other humorous exchanges. Many lines elicit laughter, along with a deeper penetration of the character’s lives.
Two of the chat room’s longtime members, a woman (“Orangutan”) and a man (“Chutes & Ladders”) immediately pounce on a new member, a man named “Fountainhead.” Odessa, also known by her online handle, “Haikumom,” tries to deescalate the hostile attacks towards “Fountainhead.” But she makes it clear that if “Fountainhead” is looking for sympathy, he has come to the wrong place. The others give “Fountainhead” some homework to do before his next appearance in the chat room. In other words, “Fountainhead” must earn his r-e-s-p-e-c-t from this group.
One of the most striking things about this production is its set (by Sibyl Wicker Sheimer), which is divided into a series of small rectangles. Each empty rectangle is independently illuminated. The rectangles sometimes look like a row of blank playing cards; at other times, they are filled with colored lights and swirling images.
It is worth noting that the chat room scenes do not involve characters tapping away at computer keyboards. Occasionally, Odessa looks at a blank monitor, as if she is reading the online conversation. Sometimes, characters become so animated that they step into each other’s “frame” – despite the fact they are physically separated by many miles. It is impossible not to think of the now-common practice of Zoom office meetings, which can be held among people from all over the country, if not the world. As another critic commented about the chat room scenes: “None of these characters has ever met each other, but after letting their guard down regularly on cyberspace they know each other so very well.”
The actors are clearly up to their assigned roles. Daniel Jose Molina, as Elliot, moves with an angular stiffness. A phantom figure from Elliot’s past is a recurring nightmare throughout the play. Again, there are many similarities between Elliot’s impressions of Iraq and the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Yazmin (Nancy Rodriguez), assumes the mantle of family matriarch after Ginny’s death. She realizes she has big shoes to fill, which is a source of concern.
Yasmin understands the undercurrent of resentment in Elliot. Why did Ginny die, when her sister, Odessa, was the one who made such a mess of her life? We hear Elliot’s chilling tale in which Odessa, once the mother of two sick children, ran off to get a fix instead of following a doctor’s orders. She was instructed to give each child a “spoonful of water” every five minutes to prevent dehydration. Her negligence resulted in disaster.
More family secrets leak out during the play. As Odessa, Vilma Silva is a multi-sided character who tries to do better by monitoring the addiction chat room. Her sudden absence perplexes both Orangutan (Celeste Den) and Chutes & Ladders (Bruce A. Young). Although “Fountainhead,” the newcomer, doesn’t get nearly as much time in the limelight, Barret O’Brien is believable as a former tech millionaire with a long road ahead of him.
The film focuses on the entire stage, especially when more than one sequence is happening within its squares. Camera angles are limited, and one longs for a few close-ups thrown in. Since the actors sometimes talk with the audience to their backs, turning on the closed captioning feature is recommended.
What makes Water by the Spoonful so intoxicating is how it believably unravels its flawed characters, in a way not unlike August: Osage County. If there is any hope for this bunch, the playwright seems to be saying, it lies in the strength of family, whether people are linked by biology, or not.
A digital version of Water by the Spoonful is available through September 25. Go to osfashland.org.