"Water by the Spoonful" at Hartford TheaterWorks

By Tom Nissley

I saw a beautiful play yesterday at Hartford Stage. Beautifully written -- perhaps a better word is composed -- and beautifully directed. Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” directed by Davis McCallum, is a gently interwoven collage of moments within the lives of recovering crack heads. Addicts to crack-cocaine. And their families. The ensemble of actors in this pastiche move in and out of focus in a handsomely staged production that brings social media to the foreground and tells a powerful story of a chat room for addicts. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘we met on the internet.’


Odessa, otherwise known as HaikuMom (Liza Colon-Zayas) runs the chat room from her computer in a flat in Philadelphia. Other members of the chat room include Chutes and Ladders (Ray Anthony Thomas), Orangutan (Teresa Avia Lim), and Fountainhead (Matthew Boston). Each of these persons is completely different from the others, any way you describe it. Racially, culturally, economically, by education, and job-wise. What they have in common is an addiction to crack cocaine, and the will to recover. They are a virtual support group, a meeting online, and they become available to each other with all the commitment that kind of secret society requires.


Each of these fascinating folks has a secret pain, complicated by their addiction and the climb back into sobriety, and of course contributing to the pain which the addiction pretends to mask over. Orangutan, for instance, was born in Japan, and adopted when she was nine days old into a family in Maine. She grew up there, the only Asian in a community of non-Asians, except for one clerk in a delicatessen.  Her longing to feel normal helped fuel her desire to rebel into crack. Chutes and Ladders lost his family and has no contact with his son. And HaikuMom’s son Elliot, so beautifully played by Armando Riesco, is a wounded young veteran with a belly-full of hatred for his mother, who gave him away to her sister after she lost Elliot’s twin sister when both children had the flu so badly that they needed a spoonful of water every few minutes. Elliot survived but his anger survived with him. Now the sister who raised him has died, and Elliot, along with his cousin Yazmin (Zabryna Guervara), wants to create a family funeral with dignity and meaning. The stress of cooperating with her dysfunctional family throws HaikuMom off the wagon, prompting a series of resolutions that may be somewhat contrived but that at the same time bring the play to a breathable (as opposed to breathless) conclusion.


“Water by the Spoonful” is the middle play of a trilogy of three: the others are “Elliot: a Soldier’s Fugue,” already performed, and “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” which is yet to be revealed. Hudes, whose family home was in West Philadelphia, has drawn on her own family for resources for her writing and thinking, and has also styled each play to different rhythms. “Elliott…” is based on the rhythms of a Bach Fugue; “Water...” on music by John Coltrane, a jazz composer, and “Happiest Song…” uses Puerto Rican and Jordanian folk music as its theme setting. It was hard not to want to see the three plays together. More to the point, I would like to see the three plays together, and I hope that at least Armando Riesco will be featured in “Happiest Song...,” as he has been in the first two. I could easily imagine doing that at Hartford Stage.


But it’s unfair to sound as if only Mr. Riesco deserves notice here. In fact, each of these disparate characters was so well developed by its actor owner that “Water by the Spoonful” easily jumps to nomination for the best ensemble production in this year’s Connecticut season, which has only begun. Colon-Zayas, Lim, Guevara, Thomas, and Boston each did great stagework, as did Demosthenes Chrysan in the lesser roles of the professor and policeman. When so much works so well, it’s simple evidence of excellent direction by Mr. McCallum and his crew.


A splendid creative set (Neil Patel) took full advantage of Hartford Stage’ bells and whistles, with fully occupied tables and chairs rising from or disappearing to spaces beneath the floor, or whole rooms moving forward from behind stage, and projections of the home pages of the chat-roomers while the actors connected with each wandered through the scenes speaking their posts, sometimes as if in a different dimension. The lighting (Russell H. Champa) and sound (Bray Poor, J. Michael Friedman) and costumes (Chloe Chapin) added splendor. And special attention to the casting (Stephanie Klapper) provided a fully integrated cast that met the demands of the script in every way.


If you’ve any question, I give this production the highest possible praise, and expect to be thinking of it for weeks and months as we move towards the new year. “Water by the Spoonful” holds all our feet to the fires which must be embraced as our society marches forward.


Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

November 10, 2011


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