“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes is a Pultizer Prize winning drama that invests itself in the intricacies of who and what we call home. It gives a detailed account of Elliot (Andres Rodriguez), an Iraqi war veteran and recovering addict, and his journey to find consolation in a world he’s been excluded from. The play grapples with themes of loss, redemption and community as it introduces us to people who are on the margins of society, specifically drug addicts. These themes are rarely discussed in the public sphere and are hard to talk about overall, which proves the mastery of the SUNY New Paltz theatre department to superbly bring these themes forward and encourage discussion on truly pressing issues.
The mainstage production, “Water by the Spoonful,” was performed March 1-4 and 8-11 under the direction of guest director Jerry Ruiz. The cast was racially diverse and this play is the first one ever performed at SUNY New Paltz written by a woman of color. Putting on this production pushed the boundaries of the department and is the start of productions that will head them in an important and valuable direction.
The intimacy required for the play is dynamic, crucial and moving. This production exemplified that level of intimacy at its forefront, where all the extended themes branched out. All the characters are in search of a home and comfort within each other, despite all the challenges that present themselves from their past or surface in their lives in real time. Every actor on stage echoed a sincere level of longing, and brought the deep emotions that come with this lack of solace to the stage.
Rodriguez was deeply invested in the life of his character Elliot and he made it apparent in nearly every movement. Whether it be the injury in Elliot’s leg or his love-hate relationship with his biological mother Odessa (Clarissa Mota), Rodriguez’s performance captured the struggle with loss and redemption that highlighted every scene.
Elliot battles many demons throughout the play, such as his PTSD making him picture the ghost (Kai Junn Lathrop) of an Iraqi man he killed due to a misunderstanding. The forms in which PTSD were displayed on stage were some of the most interesting in terms of staging, where the ghost enters the play unexpectedly and encircles Elliot, and lighting, as the purple lighting alerted the audience that they were entering Elliot’s mind.
Rodriguez’s emotional trauma from the haunting of the man he killed could be seen in his eyes, his body and his words. Lathrop achieves an incredibly sense of haunting as he reappears periodically throughout the play. A highlight of Lathrop’s performance was his effortless transition between the three characters he plays, Professor Aman, the Ghost and a Japanese policeman. His characters were outsiders who added a multifaceted depth of humanity to the performance.
Mota’s performance was stunning as she put forth the deepest sense of pain amongst all of the characters. She made Odessa spring to life with her ability to portray incredible loss even through just subtle body language and facial expressions that showed her defeat. Odessa’s familial problems are complex and largely due to her own neglect and addiction, which she deals with throughout the entire play and forces herself to face.
Her comfort comes in how well she is able to help those in her online community, as she runs a forum for recovering crack/cocaine addicts. She has people who rely on her while she feels like a failure to her biological family. This dilemma and struggle between belonging somewhere and making amends is a complex issue to present on stage, and the level of depth Mota achieved was phenomenal. Rodriguez and Mota achieved the tension needed for estranged family members and made it easy to enter their world and understand their pain.
Mota’s depth continued via her relationship with Fountainhead (Kyle O’Shea). These characters hold a lot of weight in the play, as they come together through unlikely circumstances, being that Fountainhead is a put together, upper class white man attempting to hide his addiction from his cookie-cutter family. Yet somehow, these characters help each other immensely in one another’s lives. These two care for each other deeply and Fountainhead brings out the best in Odessa.
Mota created the perfect atmosphere for this relationship to bloom as she held so much hidden in her character, letting Odessa’s increasing struggle seep out at a perfect pace. Mota was withheld yet vulnerable, and through that hostility and gentle aura, O’Shea created the perfect amount of push and pull between them. A special applause is deserved for how well these two stayed in character, as they arrive on stage during intermission and conduct a full conversation with each other, never once yielding from their high level of commitment.
One of Elliot’s only forms of comfort throughout the play is his cousin Yazmin (Deanna Casañas). Casañas’ strengths in performance was in her portrayal of all the nuances within her character. She seems to have herself the most put together, but is directly affected by all the addiction and loss surrounding her and impacting her family. Yazmin is in the middle of a divorce, yet keeps an air of optimism for her family to tie them together. Casañas brings a similar sense of unity to the play.
My favorite relationship lied between Orangutan (Livia Simmons) and Chutes & Ladders (Lester Mayers). These characters hold nearly all of the comedic relief for the show, and promote the happiest ending in the sense of togetherness. The show concludes with these characters united in Japan, where Orangutan is living and Chutes & Ladders joins her. This uniting of two recovering addicts demonstrates the hope for all people in recovery. Life can go on.
Mayers’ comedic timing was unparalleled, and he kept the pace of the show going in and out of every scene. I felt deeply for his losses and life struggles, as well as laughed hysterically at his jokes and conveniently placed one-liners. To cultivate that duality in a character is difficult, but Mayers made it look easy.
Simmons kept a refreshing pace to the show and added an interesting dynamic. She could be sharp tongued and sweet in the same blow to Chutes & Ladders. Simmons owned her space and drew eyes to her with every line. Her character pushed for her life to go in the direction she wanted and refused to succumb to her addictions. She was proud and troubled, yet not owned by her troubles. Simmons made Orangutan a beacon of hope.
This show was one of the most moving pieces I’ve seen to date as it showcased and destigmatized these difficult problems. It created a sense of unity while still allowing each character’s dynamics to shine. This play humanized addicts, veterans and marginalized people while approaching the topics of loss and redemption from a unique angle. Every member of this production, cast and crew knew exactly what they were doing with this intricate play and managed to bring to life the online aspects of community, the missed connections of each character and the close relationships among the most unlikely of people.