Sometimes a spoonful of water can turn into a cascade.
The title of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” might suggest a tranquil and contemplative outing. But this beautifully written play, which collides the stories of an Iraq War veteran and an online community of recovering drug addicts, is anything but a placid experience. It swirls together the fierce (an unblinking look at contemporary Latino issues) with the bemused (an extended nod to the way the online experience has changed the way we communicate), then adds nuanced insights into war, class, poverty, cyber etiquette, guilt and the way that family cultural dynamics can shape lives.
Most of all, Hudes gives us gripping characters whose skins feel lived in, whose daily existences have the shopworn ambiance of everyday life.
Director Kathleen McKinley crafts a Fresno State production that is thoughtful, sturdy and occasionally brilliant. Most important, I’m happy to see a work by a Latino playwright (Hudes prefers “Latino” in the same way that many women prefer to be known as “actors”) writing about Latino lives in a mainstage production on the Fresno State campus. In terms of issues of race: While the recent production of David Mamet’s “Race” was provocative and insightful, it also felt as if the playwright was pontificating from on high. “Spoonful” feels much more whole and organic. Instead of shouting at us, it aches — and celebrates — when it comes to issues of race.
Hudes wrote the play as the second in a trilogy, but you don’t need to have seen the first (“Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue”) to appreciate “Spoonful.”
The narrative runs in two parallel threads during the first act. Elliot Ortiz (Austin Yarbrough) is a Marine vet who returns home to working-class Philadelphia. Haunted by the demons of war, he makes ends meet working at Subway. He’s close with his cousin, Yazmin (Karina Rodriguez), a college professor. Their Puerto Rican-American upbringing has steeped them in a cultural tradition of close family bonds, but a tragic event darkened their childhoods. As the play opens, Elliot learns that the aunt who raised him — and for whom he acted as caregiver — has died, which serves as a catalyst for the narrative to come.
In the other thread, we “enter” an online chat room devoted to recovering addicts and meet four of its mainstays. Haikumom (Amanda Valdez) serves as moderator and mother figure. “Chutes & Ladders” (Ryan Woods) is bristly and caring, but he can’t extend his success at online relationships to the real world. “Orangutan” (Reshma Meister) longs to meet her Japanese birth parents. And a newcomer, “Fountainhead” (Steven Weatherbee), a fast-track corporate type, decides to join to finally confront his addiction issues.
McKinley’s fine direction is especially sharp in the cyberworld of the play, helped by Jeff Hunter’s simple yet effective scenic design (modern-looking ramps and minimalist set pieces) and Liz Waldman’s sound and projection design (computer icons on a large screen). Most interesting is the way the actors relate to each other in this online world. They don’t stay stuck to computer screens but move around and even talk to each other — but there’s always a relational distance between them, even when they lock eyes. I was fascinated at one point to watch an argument erupt between the chat room members. The sudden conflagration — and isn’t it true that online discussions can suddenly escalate? — seemed to roar before me. I realized it was the first time I had ever seen online conflict visually represented in a way that made it seem raw and real.
All four actors playing the online characters are strong. Weatherbee is terrific, giving us a hunched, desperate and subtly moving performance.
Eventually some of the play’s online storyline bumps into the real-world narrative. (I won’t reveal how because it’s a major plot point.) The play offers a fascinating window into the dynamics of extended Latino families and how the imperative to “share everything” at all costs can also have its downsides. An effective and compelling Yarbrough, as Elliott, gives a bracing performance but falters in a few scenes. Rodriguez, as Yazmin, remains mostly on the surface in this production, rarely able to connect with the deeper textures of her character. Some key emotional moments — when the two learn of the death of Elliott’s adoptive mother early on, say, and a funeral eulogy — feel flat.
There are a few times that McKinley’s direction loses its vigor. The play’s occasional Magical Realism moments involving a recurrent Elliott war flashback (he keeps seeing a Ghost played by Adam Bin Zakaria) seemed too realistic to me. And one of the play’s pivotal revelations, revealed in a coffee shop, doesn’t have the searing emotional impact that it could. Too many of the actors seemed to be reciting lines rather than experiencing the moment. Yojaira Lemus could have helped out with a more nuanced lighting design. (There was also a conflict between the lighting and the scenic projections in the online scenes, with some images washed out by the lights.)
But that coffee shop scene did have one standout: Valdez, who really soars in this production. Feisty, cocky and in control, she struts her stuff in the play’s cyberworld. Yank her character from that cocoon, however, and Valdez gives us a revelatory glimpse at a gritty reality. (In a late scene involving a medical emergency, McKinley stages one of the most breathtaking visual moments I’ve ever seen on a Fresno State stage.)
It’s that sense of surprise and discovery that gives “Water by the Spoonful” such impact.