Water by the Spoonful
Quiara Alegría Hudes
San Francisco Playhouse
Remaining estranged from a son for ten years. Maneuvering through a messy divorce. Refusing any sort of relationship with a birth mother while caring for the dying aunt (her sister) who raised him. Being the mother now detested by your son. Wanting to find the Japanese birth parents who gave her up to the parents in Maine who raised her. Acting like a seven-year marriage with two, young sons is perfect when it is far from it.
Six people with family relationships in varying states of collapse, turmoil, and total absence. One also suffering from PTSD, pain medication addiction, and horrifying nightmares. Four recovering (or sometimes, not recovering) from a life dependent on crack.
Populating Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful (winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), these six characters are all searching for ways to connect to other human beings; to reconstruct what ‘family’ can mean for them; and more fundamentally, just to survive until tomorrow while also hoping to find a way to have a good day, today. Opening at the San Francisco Playhouse at a time we are all recovering from a two-year isolation from many of our own family and friend relationships, Water by the Spoonful in the end provides hope that we as humans can and will find ways to create a ‘family’ around us – often through courageous steps by ourselves and others – when our natural families are no more. With stark examples of the damage – sometimes irreversible – that an addiction can have on individuals and on their families, Water by the Spoonful illustrates paths to a better tomorrow as the idea of what is ‘family’ is re-imagined in varying, courageous ways.
Elliot Ortiz is an aspiring actor who others recognize for his Colgate ad on the local Spanish TV channel where he turns to the camera flashing his pearly whites with a sexy, “Sonrisa, Babe!” Working now as a “a butler [and] a porter of sandwiches” at a local Subway, Elliot is also suffering from PTSD after his service as a Marine in Iraq, fighting daily the now-addictive need for pain meds. He also has ongoing, frightening visions of a ghost (played with unsettling, specter mode by Salim Razawi) who keeps asking in Arabic, “May I please have my passport back?” Xander DeAngeles provides a powerful depiction of a man who does all he can to hold onto his dreams of future stardom in Hollywood while both daily dealing with his haunting demons and also caring for the dying aunt, Ginny, who raised him. Being a guy who loves to joke and spend time with Ginny’s daughter and his cousin, Yazmin, Elliot walks a tightrope between holding it together and exploding into rage. The latter is especially true when it comes to his mother, Odessa, whose crack addiction destroyed the family he once had with her and his sister.
Lara Maria is Elliot’s loving, naturally cheerful, and always encouraging cousin, Yazmin Ortiz, who loses her own cool when discussing her currently dissolving marriage and the husband who is trying to screw her financially. As a lecturer of music at Swarthmore, Yazmin thrives in telling the story of how at the age of thirteen, she discovered “dissonance.” That love of no harmony in music becomes a wonderful metaphor for the things about to occur in her and Elliot’s lives. In a play full of many troubles and struggles, Lara Maria’s Yazmin is a welcome beacon of humor and support who is creating her own clear vision of what she needs to do as a thirty-one-year-old to sustain the family around her.
The mother that Elliot no longer wants to own as his is Odessa Ortiz, a former crack addict who now is the moderator of an online, anonymous chat group of other recovering addicts. We meet her as she greets the others with a big, “It’s a beautiful morning, a great day to be sober,” and then recites her latest haiku (and thus her online alias, “Haikumom”). Reading the typed messages of others in her robe while sipping coffee and filing her nails, Odessa gives knowing smirks as “Orangutan” and “Chutes&Ladders” banter back and forth via their keyboards. Lisa Ramirez is a tough cookie with a big heart as Haikumom. Clean from crack for many years, she advises a newcomer to the group, “Staying clean is like trying to tap dance in a mine field,” while also saying with obvious sincerity, “A sober day for you is a sober day for me.” But when she steps on one of those land mines during a confrontation with her long-alienated son, Lisa Ramirez is heart-achingly stunning as her Odessa has a life-shattering relapse to old ways and habits.
Dorian Lockett is a fifty-year-old, Black “IRS paper pusher” with an online alias of Chutes&Ladders who lives by strict do’s and don’ts, staying within self-defined and risk-averse borders in order not to disrupt his many years of sobriety from crack. Those cautions include a fear of rejection if he picks up the phone and calls the son he has not seen in ten years. For him, that could lead to a relapse to his once-addicted self.
Twenty-something Orangutan has the online hots for C&L enough to beg him to join her in Japan so they can meet in person. “You’re the only one more sarcastic than I … Come save me,” she taunts via the keyboard; but Chutes&Ladders keeps fending off her tempting invites with excuses ranging from his age to his looks to the fact he has coffee stains on his tie. In her rainbow wig and with a hankering to dance in a local gay bar, Sango Tajima’s Orangutan displays one side of herself that is playful and a bit devilish while in her own shadows is always a more needy side that longs to be reunited with the parents she never met and who desperately is searching for a deeper, person-to-person relationship – not just one based on 1s and 0s at the computer screen.
Into this anonymous support group suddenly drops a thirty-year-old white guy calling himself “Fountainhead.” His cockiness quickly infuriates both Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders with his boasts of a golden life (wife, two kids, $300K salary, etc.) and his claim of being still a crack-novice who is just “knocking on the door” with “a #2 pencil” to learn “rational thoughts to block out that voice in my head.” The other two are not buying it, with C&L particularly outraged that the new guy refuses to confess his crack habit to his supposed-loving wife and not to admit to himself, her, or them that he is actually a full-on addict. Ben Euphrat, like others in this cast, teaches us volumes about the life of an addict who looks a lot like some of us and is not the stereotype we may have in our minds, given what we often see in the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The cocky denials, the terrified recognition, the pleas for help, and the compassion for another worse off than he are elements of his addicted life that are all masterfully portrayed by Fountainhead.
Catalina Niño’s scenic design includes a second-level setting for Odessa’s apartment surrounded by a rotating table where numerous other scenes emerge. Draped behind and on either side are ceiling-to-floor curtains on which both beautiful and jarring projections designed by Teddy Hulsker amplify and intensify the moods, emotions, and themes that Denise Blasor as director is emphasizing from the script. Those are further illustrated by effects like that of rippling water as mesmerizingly created by lighting designer Stephanie Anne Johnson and sound designer Teddy Hulsker.
Throughout the two-hour evening (plus intermission), Director Blasor chooses often to have two-to-three scenes play on stage in parallel. At times, this becomes somewhat overwhelming and distracting. There is also at least one scene that is a bit drawn out (i.e., a flower-shop scene of picking flowers for a graveside) where the task takes on more significance than the length and deliberation warrant.
How tenuous one’s grip on life can be when under the direct or indirect influence of an addiction is illustrated by Quiara Alegría Shapiro’s choice of the play’s title. A spoonful of water, given in regular amounts, can be life-giving to someone dehydrated and on the verge of death, especially a two-year-old infant. When the spoonful is being provided by a crack-addicted mother, the forceful pull of another hit of crack may be too much to resist. San Francisco Playhouse’s Water by the Spoonful leaves nothing to the imagination about an addiction’s destructive powers on a family as a unit and on its members individually. However, Quiara Alegría Shapiro’s award-winning script also reminds us of the propelling drive humans have in order to find and rebuild lives and families that appear to be all-but lost and to recreate new ways of relationship out of the ashes of what was once destroyed.
Rating: 4 E
Water by the Spoonful continues through April 23, 2022 in live performance at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/ or by phone at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli