Water, whether it is a spoonful or an ocean, is really just a collection of droplets, themselves a collection of molecules that have united to form a larger whole. Through cohesion and community, water forms a body that relies on all its individual parts for strength, definition, and unity.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’s new play WATER BY THE SPOONFUL—2012’s surprise Pulitzer winner in drama, now receiving its New York debut at Second Stage Theatre—is a thorough examination of community’s uniting forces. Water forms a body through chemistry, but people are different, making seemingly natural unifiers like family untrustworthy bonders. Nonetheless, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL suggests that community is an imperative rather than a luxury, tasking its characters with the responsibility of finding strength in dynamic communities of reciprocal support.
The play’s first act gives us two ostensibly independent communities that converge later in surprising and occasionally explosive fashion.
First we meet Yaz and Elliot, cousins and the representatives of an apparently much larger Puerto-Rican-American family from Philadelphia. Elliot is a twenty-something Marine veteran, honorably discharged after a leg injury in Iraq, and Yaz is a college professor, musician, and Elliot’s steadying influence. As we learn that Elliot’s mother is in the late stages of cancer, we also become acutely aware that he remains haunted by grizzly war memories. When his mother’s health takes a downturn, Elliot’s father simply texts him to let him know she is on a breathing machine, Elliot puts his fist through a mirror, and the internal strife of this family begins to reveal itself.
The play’s other community is an online support group for crack addicts, meeting and chatting in a virtual world represented through some wonderfully innovative staging. The three principle members of this community—known only by their online personae of “Haikumom,” “Orangutan,” and “Chutes and Ladders”—share the stage but never interact physically. Instead, they speak as if into an abyss—addressing neither the other onstage performers nor the audience—giving voice to the text we understand the characters to be typing into their online forum. Director Davis McCallum smartly resists any temptation to isolate these characters in their own stage space, choosing instead to define their space fluidly, allowing the bodies to overlap onstage, occasionally coming close enough for intimacy and bodily interaction but remaining nonetheless always oblivious to the physicality of their interlocutors.
Essentially an online Narcotics Anonymous meeting, this community shares their collective struggles fighting relapse. Haikumom, Orangutan, and Chutes and Ladders have a clear rapport and comfort level with each other, and so when “Fountainhead,” joins the discussion as a forum newbie, he is met with the resistance of a galvanized community suspicious of outsiders. Addiction has hurled the lives of the three into various levels of disarray and discord, but Fountainhead shows up in the hopes of preventing such personal disaster in his life: young, wealthy, and a husband and father, he seeks to free himself from his addiction before it destroys his bourgeois comfort. The others struggle to recognize suffering on par with their own (seeing instead a distinct cocky brashness in the newcomer), so Fountainhead’s entrance into the community is halting and tense.
When these two communities converge in the play’s second act (I’ll not reveal their link because while it is clear enough that they will somehow intersect, the surprise of how they do so is a particular highlight of the play), the demons underlying both come to the surface, threatening to destroy any sense of cohesiveness among the characters and the wreak havoc among the play’s collective of tattered psyches. As the communities begin to splinter, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL asks if their galvanizing forces were ever strong enough to unite so troubled and so disparate individuals.
Elliot’s struggle is perhaps the most intriguing, simply because his sense of community is so fractured and opaque. A Marine that is no longer part of the corps, and the son of either alienated or dying parents, Elliot seems to wander uneasily through a life of which he struggles to make sense. He turns consistently to Yaz for grounding, but she is ultimately the representative of a family that is falling apart and so that grounding grows increasingly unsteady. His is the personal crucible the play is most interested in examining, revealing a number of different layers to his character as the evening progresses. As Elliot, Armando Riesco thus gives the character an appropriate amount of conflict between putting on a strong façade for the world (even Yaz) to see, and fighting his psychological battles on his own.
Admirably, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL resists imposing closure or pat solutions to the complex problems of individual and community it introduces. Like Elliot, each of the online community’s members struggle mightily both with the problems they face openly together and with their individual battles, none of which are offered a simple conclusion.
Many of the play’s conflicts, however, are familiar and unsurprising—by now we recognize clearly enough how an addict alienates his or her family; we know how harrowing the struggle to get clean can be; and we understand the psychological battles veterans of war face—and so the play leaves open the question of how it complicates our understanding of its central issues. And while the play’s examination of the dynamics of community and shared struggle might unsettle some assumptions for a time, its resolution ultimately reinforces its premise that community forms around common experience and shared struggle rather than natural unifiers like family.
When droplets of water unite into a stream, that body flows freely until something impedes or changes its path. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is an insightful examination of addiction, psychological strife, and community, but it ultimately does little to change the path of how we understand those struggles.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL
By Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Davis McCallum
Through February 10th
Second Stage Theatre
305 West 43rd St
New York, NY 10036