‘Water by the Spoonful’ infuses dark plot with warmth

‘Water by the Spoonful,’ Cap and Bells’ latest production, showed last weekend at the ‘62 Center. Photo courtesy of Cap and Bells
‘Water by the Spoonful,’ Cap and Bells’ latest production, showed last weekend at the ‘62 Center. Photo courtesy of Cap and Bells

One is tempted to call the Cap and Bells production Water By The Spoonful, directed by Rose Warner Miles ’17, a play about addiction and recovery, and it is. The struggle with substance abuse that most of the characters endure is one of the central drivers of the action and feeling of the play. However, to paint it that way is to paint the play too darkly; it is also a play about community infused with warmth and hope.

The Pulitzer-winning play by Quairia Alegria Hudes is centered around the character of Elliot Ortiz (Juan Mena ’15), a former marine, wounded in Iraq, who works at a Subway and lives with both physical and psychological wounds from his time in the service. Elliot is the tie between two communities: that of he and his cousin Yaz (Marcela Osorio ’15) dealing with the death of their aunt who raised Elliot, and that of an online chat room for recovering crack cocaine addicts. Elliot and Yaz grew up in a poor Puerto Rican community in North Philly, and Yaz “made it out.” She’s a professor at Swarthmore, owns a $17,000 piano, and married a rich white man. But the play opens with Elliot acting as witness while Yaz signs her divorce papers, just as she is losing one of the last things tying her to north Philly: their aunt Mama Jeannie, the family matriarch who raised Elliot. Around the same time, it comes to light that Elliot has an addiction problem that he had been concealing from Yaz.

Parallel to Elliot and Yaz’s story is a seemingly distinct community: an online chat room for recovering crack addicts, administrated by Haikumom (the characters in the chat room are referred to by usernames), played by Yasmin Ravulcaba ’17. In the first act, the chat room has two other arcs. The first is the friendship between Orangutan (Jenny Zheng ’17) and Chutes & Ladders (Venson Williams ’16). Orangutan is a young woman from Maine who has gone to Japan to teach English and meet her birth mother, and she is trying to translate her online friendship with Chutes & Ladders, a fifty-something black man from San Diego, into a real life friendship by getting him to visit her in Japan. The second arc is about Fountainhead (Jasper Burget ’18), an upper-class white computer programmer coming to terms with being both unemployed and addicted to crack.

The two worlds converge at the end of the first act, when it turns out that Haikumom is Elliot’s mom, Odessa Ortiz. Ravulcaba as Haikumom is extremely maternal so this revelation does not come as a huge surprise, but it also gives Ravulcaba the opportunity to show her range, dealing with a real son who views her less like a mother than her chatroom users do, and shows Hudes’s understanding of human complexity. Even after the revelation, Orangutan and Chutes & Ladders’ story remains mostly distinct. Omar Gouda ’16 rounds out the cast by playing three characters, most notably a ghost from Iraq haunting Elliot.

The play is both universal and particular; it deals with a very specific American community, in a specific place, in a specific moment in time, right around the trough of the recession. These are the best parts of the play. The relationship between Elliot and Yaz is very real, and it was clear that Osorio and Mena had managed to forge a real connection to portray that relationship. Osorio and Mena play the parts convincingly, especially first-time actor Osorio, who ranges from a professor lecturing on Coltrane to the angry-because-she-cares cousin raging at Mena for not telling her about his addiction. Mena makes Ortiz’s fight with his demons very real, although at times his anger seems forced.

Remarkably for such a critically acclaimed play, the worst, flattest parts of the play seem to be determined by the script. Miles, along with lighting and sound designers Russell Maclin ’17 and Scott Daniel ’17, do a good job at making the chat room section not too ridiculous, but they can’t overcome the weirdness of portraying a text-based community on stage. The actors sit facing the audience, each with their own lights, and say their lines aloud. There are thankfully only two sound effects, for when a character logs on or logs off, and they do not type while speaking. It comes across awkwardly, as the actors cannot talk to each other and thus seem to be monologuing, even in the midst of arguments. One understands that the chat room is there to universalize the play’s themes, but the best plays can do that without straying from what theatre captures best: People talking to each other. Skilled acting, and a great deal of humor, makes up for most of it. Fountainhead is by far the funniest part of the play, as a very uptight, elitist bro. (He once ran a half-marathon, and he drives a Porsche, he says in his introduction). We laugh more at him than with him, but we get past it to his utterly to-be-expected heart of gold. Zheng and Williams play the B friendship well, and Williams’s comedic timing provides wonderful relief.

In fact, my only other major complaint, aside from the chat room, is that there may be a bit too much comedic relief relative to the darkness in the play. That is not to say they found humor where there shouldn’t be any, but rather that the direction perhaps overplayed it. Sometimes the return to seriousness was a bit jarring as a result.

I should also note that it was not just with the chat room that the design team did a good job. The lighting designer, Maclin, deserves particular credit. In probably the play’s most memorable moment, lights are used beautifully to show falling ashes. The sets by Claire Bergey ’17 are fairly barebones, with pieces of furniture scattered across the stage, but they are sufficiently varied for the lack of unity of place, and they make good use of the ’62 Center’s CenterStage’s architecture. The upper right balcony serves as Elliot’s Subway, while the center balcony is a florist’s shop. The inconspicuous costuming, by Madeline Seidman ’17, is also ideal for the show.

Water By The Spoonful is an awkward play because of the chat room, easy to admire but hard to fall in love with, but this cast and crew takes the audience most of the way there. You leave reminded of how bad life can be, but also reminded of how it gets better.