Water by the Spoonful

Expectations are everything. As I settled into my seat at Second Stage Theatre to see the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Water by the Spoonful, I had lofty expectations. They were ultimately left unmet, but Quiara Alegria Hudes’s play (part of a trilogy, actually), is still a well-crafted, well-executed and thought provoking play.

The first act brings us two seemingly separate stories: Elliot (Armando Riesco) and his cousin, Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), are reconnecting and trying to support Elliot’s ailing mother. In addition to dealing with his family, Elliot is struggling with a ghost that’s been haunting him since he returned from Iraq. (This struggle, I learned in a post-show talkback with director Davis McCallum, is fully explored in the first play of the trilogy; Spoonful is the second in the series.) Meanwhile, Odessa (Liza Colon Zayas), Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison) and Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim) are interacting through an online support group for crack addicts, and things are shaken up when Fountainhead (a stand out Bill Heck) joins the online community. In the second act, worlds collide and the very idea of family and community is challenged.

Hudes gives us a lot to chew on. First and foremost is the idea of community. During intermission, a generation gap was made apparent when I heard several fellow audience members – all senior citizens – discussing their dislike or lack of understanding of the online vignettes. They couldn’t comprehend how a community could be cultivated online.

Blending into the idea of community is the idea of family. Is your family, or even a particular person’s place within it, dictated solely by biology or is the definition of family more beautiful and complex? (I believe it’s the latter.)

The scenic design by Neil Patel bolsters these questions. For example, all the walls of the set look like cold, somber stones, evincing isolation. Those surroundings make the community and family unit even more important to the characters.

Questionably adding to a community is dissonance: a harsh or unpleasant combination, two things that, on the surface, don’t go together (like the two seemingly separate stories presented in act one). Yaz brings this up more than once. She is a music professor and talks about her experience as a student, and in particular the moment her mentor helped her discover dissonance. She thought these two chords were – on paper – absolutely wrong for each other. “They don’t go together,” she says. What’s left unsaid but yet conveyed in Guevara’s performance is that sometimes the most bizarre pairings make the most beautiful music.

That sentiment is reiterated in the online forum, particularly in the bond Orangutan and Chutes and Ladders form. A friend who also saw Spoonful remarked that he found the connection between the two characters made little sense, but I offered that it speaks to the power of an anonymous online community and reinforces the magic of dissonance.

Moreover, Hudes gets us thinking about doing something – even a little thing – rather than doing nothing. The title refers to how Elliot’s mother fed him when he was sick, but it speaks to how we care for one another. It reminds us that we needn’t do everything and all at once, but little by little we must tend to our garden.

(In this reflection, I find that Water by the Spoonful is like some of the books I had to read in high school, like Catcher in the Rye. I didn't necessarily love reading them, but I loved thinking about and discussing them.)

Water by the Spoonful continues at Second Stage Theatre through January 27. To learn more, visit 2st.com.

View production stills taken by Richard Termine.