Stories of addiction are, unfortunately, nothing new. However, this well-worn subject is examined in a refreshingly original way in Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water By The Spoonful. This play surprised the establishment by landing the 2012 Pulitzer Prize without first having a prominent New York production.
The current incarnation onstage at West Palm Beach’s Actor’s Rep is the show’s South Florida premiere and plays only until this January 26th. That gives you only three more chances to catch this thought-provoking examination of the many forms addiction can take and the many forms healing can as well.
The play, very much an ensemble piece, seems at first divided into two disparate plotlines that play out across an innovative three-level stage. One is the story of Iraqi war veteran Elliot Ortiz (Joan M. De La Rosa), who must deal with the death of his aunt/adoptive mother Ginny as he struggles to cope with the mental and physical scars of war.
Along with suffering from the lingering pain of a combat wound, Elliot experiences frequent flashbacks to his worst wartime memories, represented via haunting visits from a ghostly apparition played with menace by Federico Cadaje. This unique and visceral way to describe the usually-invisible struggles of post-traumatic stress disorder put us directly into Elliot’s head and makes his questionable coping mechanisms more understandable.
In plotline two, we first meet Odessa (Keri Lurtz) as the warm, spiritual Haikumom who presides over an internet chatroom for recovering crack addicts. There, she and two characters are known for most of the show only by their screen names, ChutesAndLadders (Lyndel Thomas) and Orangutan (Tashna Richards). They weather everyday challenges of sobriety and try and figure out how to deal with pretentious new arrival Fountainhead (Brother Simpson).
These stories (spoiler alert!!) converge before intermission when we learn that Odessa is Elliot’s estranged mother. Though Haikumom had alluded to horrors in her drug-addict past, it is only during Act 2 that we understand the magnitude of these horrors and how they played a part in turning Elliot into the troubled man he has become. This structural innovation helps us have sympathy for Odessa, a character who could quickly have appeared unforgivable if we first encountered her at her rock bottom.
It’s certainly not a story that whitewashes addiction or recovery. Even the characters who have managed to stay sober for years can never forget that they are one weak moment away from falling back into a thrall, a fact devastatingly illustrated when one character ends up in mortal peril.
A few of director Robert Carter’s casting choices struck me as a little baffling. For instance, why does De La Rosa speak with a strong Spanish accent while the actresses playing his cousin and mother do not? Why cast ostensibly white actresses as characters whose Hispanic heritage is essential to their backstory? However, despite these contradictions, the casts’ performances remained relatively solid throughout the demanding material. I’ll avoid any (further) spoilers, but Water By The Spoonful ultimately comes to a satisfying resolution that manages to be sincerely hopeful without feeling overly sentimental or unearned. The moments of growth or connection have been hard-won and are all the more impactful for it.