Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes’ second play in the powerful trilogy of a family torn by war and struggle, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL debuted in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2011, opened off-Broadway in 2012, and won the coveted 2012 Pulitzer Prize. The series begins with Elliot, a young man who enlists in the Marines like his father and grandfather before him. He finds himself in Iraq during soul-searing battle, is seriously wounded, and returns home briefly as he tries to sever the bonds of silence in his family. The second part of the trilogy finds Elliot struggling with civilian life while working a minimum-wage job in Philadelphia, all the while haunted by ghosts from the past.
Hudes’ first encounter with Eliot (“Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue”) was in 2003. This is an intriguing but somewhat grim study of a Puerto-Rican family attempting to balance culture, connection, and the trauma of war. Hudes’ second installment about the same family expands its scope to include others affected by painful events, almost like the waves rushing from an epicenter. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL has its grim moments, and yet it evolves into a more hopeful scenario than its predecessor. The hope that was in short supply in the past seems to be gaining traction.
The year is 2009, six years after Elliot (Sean Carvajal) left for Iraq. The play opens with a group of recovering drug addicts, each with his own screen name, who have formed a tight little chat room to share their thoughts and concerns. Chutes and Ladders (Montae Russell) is the informal leader of the group and also an IRS auditor in his “other” life. Haikumom/Odessa (Maria Costa) is the stabilizing and supportive influence, while Orangutan (Fiona Rene) and Fountainhead (Faqir Hassan) are participants with their own sets of special issues.
Enter Yazmin (Anny Rosario), who just happens to be Elliot’s cousin and hopes to study addiction and returning veterans’ issues. Then the unexpected happens. Ginny – Yazmin’s mother and Elliot’s adoptive mother – has just died, which brings the pair into the heart of the chat room. It seems that Odessa is Ginny’s sister, and Yazmin and Elliot feel that she should contribute to the funeral. It is no surprise that fur will fly, with surprising and heart-rending news to follow.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has done an excellent job of keeping all the threads in the tapestry straight, for this is a complex tale with multiple dynamics and interwoven stories. The talented ensemble cast projects subtle and overt cues to keep the audience involved and guessing. Elliot emerges as a man torn by memories and needs, a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder as well as chronic pain from his war injuries. Although he is at times somewhat difficult to understand, speaking as he does in the patois of the East Coast Puerto Rican urbanite, Sean Carvajal is an excellent Elliot who is slowly maturing from his early years as a Marine. Odessa also offers a strong performance as a woman plagued by her own ghosts. In spite of some very heavy, emotional material, the cast also tosses some humor into the mix.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL is a must-see for those taking advantage of the 2018 presentation of all three plays in Hudes’ trilogy which currently playing in Los Angeles. The second play pulls together some of the questions raised by the first production – but also adds some new inquiries which will hopefully be answered in the third “sequel” presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Company in the very near future. After witnessing the trilogy, it should become readily obvious why playwright Hudes drew the attention of the Pulitzer Prize committee.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL runs through March 11, 2018, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $25 to $95. For information and reservations, call 213-972-7231 or go online.