There’s an old saying that you can’t choose your family. It’s true, to some extent, but the relationships in “Water by the Spoonful” show it can be a lot more complicated.
Set in Philadelphia, and pretty much everywhere else, the Pulitzer-winning play tracks two parallel, and ultimately intersecting, threads. One follows Elliot Ortiz (Rey Lucas), an Iraq War veteran haunted by a bum leg and an actual ghost. Family is supreme for Elliot, who is devoted to his dying mother and his older cousin Yazmin (Sarah Nina Hayon), an adjunct music professor. He works at a Subway and is trying to figure out that next elusive step.
The other thread follows a chat room for recovering crack addicts. Profane, sarcastic, self-effacing, the participants supply gallons of tough love for their struggling peers. Their colorful online handles fail to blur the fear that unites them: Orangutan (Ruibo Qian), Chutes&Ladders (Keith Randolph Smith), Fountainhead (Robert Eli), and the site’s moderator HaikuMom (Marilyn Torres).
Alternately heart-rending and hilarious, the play’s genius hits in layers. There’s the ghost with the seemingly innocuous question; the strident vulnerability of the chat room addicts; and the easygoing sibling relationship between Elliot and Yazmin. Every sentence hits its intended target. Even better, “Water by the Spoonful” doesn’t over-explain. Some questions linger for a long time.
This is an emotional journey and the cast steps up. Their characters are angry but restrained; fearful but brave. They understand the play’s underlying power is its ability to explain complicated histories by simply being in the present. Smith, in particular, stands out for his work as the perpetually exasperated Chutes&Ladders. He might need an eternity to make amends.
The staging and Torres’ direction are especially impressive. The relationships between the addicts could easily seem distant. But by (mostly) ditching the keyboards, the production generates a heightened sense of intimacy. Creative lighting (by Jesse Klug) shows us who is tapping out a frenetic message. We get that they are shouting at each other from thousands of miles away.
With all these scarred characters, there’s more damage waiting just over the horizon. The beauty of the play is that each injury is paired with redemption and, in the end, a cathartic finale. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.