‘Water by the Spoonful’
Through April 13
1501 14th St., N.W.
Young Iraq war veteran Elliot Ortiz, the complicated protagonist in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful” is a character of many contradictions.
An aspiring actor with a national toothpaste commercial under his belt, he works unhappily at a Subway sandwich shop in Philadelphia. He loves his large, extended Puerto Rican family, yet harbors an intense resentment against his biological mother. And while he’s mostly recovered from a serious physical war injury, he suffers from serious PTSD. But despite this uneasy existence, Elliot soldiers on; he’s a survivor.
Now making its regional premier at Studio Theatre, Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is the second part of a trilogy centered on Elliot’s coming of age and transition into adulthood. It casts a broad net, tackling all the big themes — family, relationships, addiction and death — but the most meaningful aspect of the play is the exploration of the relationship between understandably unforgiving Elliiot (Arturo Soria) and his recovering crack addict mother Odessa (Gabriela Fernandez Coffey) who neglected her children when using (the play’s title is a reference to Odessa’s most egregious offense). While past behavior has rendered her a failed mother with her son, Odessa is a beloved maternal presence among her online family — she moderates a recovery chat room under the screen name Haikumom.
The offstage death of Elliot’s surrogate mother (and Odessa’s sister) serves to spike the tension between mother and son. Elliot savages his mother, comparing her unfavorably to her sainted community activist sister. He admits to intentionally pushing to put his mother’s sobriety at risk.
The play’s busy subplots involve members of Haikumom’s recovery chat room. The first follows the relationship between Orangutan (Amy Kim Waschke), a feisty young Asian woman, and the older African-American Chutes&Ladders (Vincent J. Brown), as it develops from virtual to in-person. She longs for human contact and real life experiences while he’d be happy to maintain a predictable distance. The second follows the struggle of a wealthy white addict screen named Fountainhead (Tim Getman), and how his unlikely friendship with low income clean domestic worker Odessa allows him to move forward in recovery.
There’s a lot happening in this play. It can be predictable and occasionally trite. But its moments of searing personal revelation along with its humor, humanity and compassion help make up for the script’s shortcomings.
Arturo Soria’s Elliot is ostensibly upbeat but there’s anger simmering just below the surface. Though often clowning, he proves ultimately introspective. It’s a memorable performance. In 2012, the Chicago-based actor created the part of streetwise gay Latino Tano in the world premiere of the Stonewall riots-themed work, “Hit the Wall” at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre.
The production is strikingly designed by a team of Studio regulars led by director KJ Sanchez. Dan Conway’s battered deconstructed set, with its rough stairway to nowhere, is populated by a clawed-foot tub, an old Formica kitchen table and randomly placed mismatched chairs. It’s a distressed but flexible tableau and the actors, with the help of Michael Giannitti’s lighting design, transport the action to many places, such as a train station in Japan and a perch high in the Puerto Rican rainforest.
Throughout his turbulent journey, Elliot is moored to calm by his supportive cousin Yazmin (Gisel Chípe), an adjunct music professor who was the first in the family to go to college. Her expectations are high. It’s Yazmin who asks Elliot to forgive his mother for the things she did while using, reminding him of Odessa’s essential goodness. Whether he can do this is uncertain.