Review: Different Stages Theatre's Water by the Spoonful

A teaspoon of gravitas, tablespoon of heart is the perfect recipe for this Pulitzer winner

(From left) Stan McDowell, Annie Kim Hedrick, Tonie Knight, and Beau Paul in Water by the Spoonful (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

The thing that immediately grabs your attention during Different Stages' moving production of Quiara Alegría Hudes' Water by the Spoonful – that is, after you rebound from the realization that the play won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama – is its musicality. Trained as a composer and known for penning the book that drives the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, Hudes' words resonate like lyrics, scenes seamlessly shift in pitch and rhythm, and the script calls for the dissonant cords of the late jazz great John Coltrane to play in the background, serving as a metaphor for the tousled lives of the people who populate this play.

Water by the Spoonful is the second installment of Hudes' Elliot trilogy (preceded by Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue and followed by The Happiest Song Plays Last) and begins with the death of the much-beloved matriarch, Ginny. It then traces its effect on those she left behind: her nephew Elliot, an emotionally and physically wounded Iraq War veteran (Jonathan Castillo) who Ginny raised since childhood; her daughter, Yazmin (Alejandra Bucio), who is an adjunct music professor; and her sister Odessa (Tonie Knight), a former crack addict and Elliot's estranged biological mother. 

Odessa runs an online support group for recovering addicts, where she uses the handle Haikumom and dispenses tough love in 17 syllables to a core of fellow travelers who go by the usernames Orangutan (Annie Kim Hedrick), Chutes&Ladders (Stan McDowell), and Fountainhead (Beau Paul). This is a play about regret, relapse, and restitution. And it is about families – the ones we make and the ones we are born into. 

Director Brogan Lozano finds the heart and humor in this story while reverently maintaining the gravitas it requires. And his actors brilliantly capture their characters' respective forms of fragility and prove to be particularly adept at delivering the Pulitzer Prize-worthy poetry found in the script. Yaz's "I want to grab the sky and smash it into pieces," Orangutan's "I'm a baby in a basket on an endless river," and Haikumom's tender, well-intended bumper-sticker wisdom could easily come across as schmaltzy pablum in lesser hands. On opening night, Castillo's effort to find the right level of intensity in his depiction of the complicated Elliot was still a work in progress.

While this play needs little embellishment, Gary Thornsberry's fallow, no-frills scenic design in the Vortex's black box theatre space and Amy Lewis' often late-arriving dramatic lighting do little to complement the performances, though the three-tier spacing of the chat room members nicely frames the action. Except for Nikki Zook's costuming and the rings and dings that constitute much of Jeff Miller's sound design, little creativity or craft went into establishing a sense of time and place in this production or creating an ethereal appearance for the Iraqi ghost (Michael Costilla) that haunts Elliot's waking hours. While the design elements are disappointing, they are not a deal breaker given this play and these performances.

Water by the Spoonful unfolds like its title implies – one measured drop after another. It is only after these drops accumulate that we come to understand the true meaning of the title and fully appreciate what appears in the script and on the stage.

Different Stages Theatre's Water by the Spoonful

The Vortex, 2307 Manor
Through Dec. 3
Running time: 2 hrs., 30 mins.

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Different Stages Theatre, The Vortex, Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Elliot trilogy, Jonathan Castillo, Alejandra Bucio, Tonie Knight, Annie Kim Hedrick, Stan McDowell, Beau Paul

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