A review of Quiara Alagria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” about the bumpy road to recovery and the families, both biological and intentional, that help along the way. At West of Lenin through Nov. 14.
In today’s America there are many families within families, new families created to replace origin families, families that nurture and others that give only grief.
In the West of Lenin airing of the Pulitzer Prize-honored play “Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes, it takes a while to understand who is related to whom, and how.
That makes the experience of this compelling and intimate group portrait all the richer in Julie Beckman’s deftly choreographed and thoughtful Theatre22 production.
‘Water by the Spoonful’
Through Nov. 14 at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St, Seattle; $18-$25 (206-352-1777 or westoflenin.com).
There’s a jazz vibe in the riffing format, and the all-Coltrane score. Moving to and fro across Montana Tippett’s runway-style, multipurpose set, the play loops around and through a broken circle of blood relations in a working-class Puerto Rican clan, and some out-of-sight but very much in-mind members of an intentional family, a web support group for recovering drug addicts.
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Elliot Ortiz (loosely based on a cousin of Hudes) is a Subway sandwich maker and aspiring actor — buff, disciplined, determined and played with chiseled intensity by Jany Bacallao as a man straining to bottle up the effects of post-traumatic stress and childhood trauma.
Elliot’s family lifelines are the much-beloved, dying Mama who raised him, and his music teacher cousin Yazmin (Yesenia Iglesias), who has risen into the middle class and was recently ditched by her estranged husband.
On the other end of the stage dwells their older relative Odessa Ortiz (Rose Cano). Her online handle is Haikumom, and she’s the linchpin of an online support group. A caring ex-junkie, she generously ladles out advice and encouragement to fellow addicts — an isolated, middle-aged bureaucrat signed on as Chutes & Ladders (G. Valmont Thomas); and a sassy but fragile young woman who goes by the Web name Orangutan (Keiko Green).
Their bumpy recovery journeys are realistic, their dialogue street-smart and poignant. And the messages in the online, far-flung conversations between them and an arrogant yuppie newcomer to the site (Jeff Allen Pierce), are spoken, rather than projected as print on screens.
This unchains most of the characters from their laptops as they expressively respond to one another, and it brings us smoothly into their individual realities and their group dynamic.
To a large degree, Hudes erases the differences between verbal and virtual speech without the awkwardness of so many other theatrical attempts. Also refreshing is how the play’s black-white-Latino-Asian American urban landscape is presented as a given, rather than a political statement.
With conversations bouncing between different American and foreign cities, “Water by the Spoonful” is set on a social-mediated planet where one can feel connected — yet still be profoundly alone.
Elliot, meanwhile, is shown scrapping through the day-to-day physical reality of low-wage life in a Philadelphia barrio, while holding back his demons — until, suddenly, a major loss throws him (and Yazmin) into Odessa’s orbit.
Some of the power of “Water by the Spoonful” derives from well-placed revelations. Suffice it to say, we learn more about, and become increasingly invested in, each of these flawed, compassionately drawn people. So much so that a too-tidy, blue-sky ending doesn’t break our bond with them.
Led by Beckman, the acting ensemble strives nobly for clarity, immediacy and naturalness, in a story that’s all about human connection and disconnection. That’s why Thomas’ displays of prickly concern, Green’s mordant jests and manic spirals, and the unvarnished restraint and hidden torment of Cano, as the person with the most to hide and regret, all hit home.
Note: “Water by the Spoonful” is the middle play in a trilogy by Hudes. Staged readings of the first play of the trilogy, “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fuge,” will be presented at ACT Theatre by Theatre22 and eSe Teatro, in English (on Monday, Nov. 2) and in Spanish (Wednesday, Nov. 11). Information: 206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org.