By Ruth Ross
Under the Artistic Direction of John Wooten, Premiere Stages has, in its 12 years of existence, produced plays that fearlessly tackle such controversial social subjects as physical disabilities, natural disasters, immigration. With so many of them written by young playwrights, often coming out of theater workshops, there is an element of dramatic risk in such productions, many of them stemming from inexperience or a lack of technique.
But with their first production of the 2016 season, the New Jersey Premiere of Water by the Spoonful, that should not hold true. For one thing, the playwright, Quiara Alegria Hudes won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for it and was a finalist in 2007 for the same prize for the first play, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, in her acclaimed "Elliot trilogy," all of which makes me wonder whether I missed something.
While the acting and staging were superb, I found Water by the Spoonful diffuse, confusing and long, even though it tackles the current scourge of opiate addiction—in this case, addiction to crack. In fact, the significance of a puzzling Arabic phrase uttered and translated in the opening scene ("May I please have my passport") is not revealed until the very last scene, despite the frequent appearance of the ghost of an Iraqi man that haunts the protagonist. And it took some figuring out that the four people seated apart from each other onstage—three of whom bear the odd names or Orangutan, Chutes&Ladders and Fountainhead—are participants involved in an Internet chat room site for addicts administered by Odessa, herself a recovering crack addict. Unless you are familiar with Internet chat rooms, what's going on onstage in those scenes is a mystery. The New York Times called the play "a moving collage of lives in crisis," which it is, but it still remains bewildering for too long.
Water by the Spoonful focuses on Iraq War vet Elliot Ortiz and his newly divorced musicology professor Yazmin who must deal with the relapse into addiction of Odessa, Elliot's estranged mother, and the death of his adopted mother Ginny. With Jeannie's death, this fractured family confronts pressing problems of loyalty, family, friendship and community and examines just how elastic these bonds can be.
While director Kel Haney moves her actors around a bare stage that becomes populated by movable furniture pushed from sliding wall panels and demands (and gets) superior performance from the seven actors, for me the writing lacked clarity. I don't look for easy understanding, but I think that older audience members might have to work a bit hard to make sense of the plot.
Sean Carvajal portrays Elliot with sensitivity and yearning. He's a talented 31-year-old actor recovering from war wounds (and, we learn later, a dependence on pain medication) while coming to grips with personal tragedy. Can he forgive his birth mother for her use of crack causing the death of his little sister from dehydration many years ago? Can he move on with his life with the death of his beloved Ginny?
As his cousin Yazmin, Emma Ramos is a competent, take-charge woman, the perfect companion to usher Elliot along on this life journey. She delivers complex lectures about jazz to undergraduates (at Swarthmore College?), organizes Jeannie's funeral and in the end chucks her academic success to take over Jeannie's role of the mater familias who kept a troubled family from running off the rails. As I have not read or seen the third play of the Elliot Trilogy, I cannot tell whether or not she succeeds.
In the pivotal role of Odessa, Zuleyma Guevara is convincing and helpful to others, although she cannot help herself conquer her own addiction. She attempts to maintain a sense of civility in the chat room, censoring bad language and calling out members when they spout baloney. Kana Hatakeyama (right, with Mangan) is the lonely Orangutan, who's gone off to Japan to experience her native culture, teach English there and find friendship. Jamil A.C. Mangan is an avuncular Chutes&Ladders, estranged from family and seeing a friend himself. These two form a bond across the World Wide Web that is touching and optimistic.
Also hopeful is the fate of Fountainhead, the tech exec addict attempting to get clean without letting his family know of his addiction, portrayed by Zack Calhoon (left with Guevara). His meeting and caring for Odessa in person at the end gives us some confidence that he will succeed. Ethan Hova is fine in the small roles of the Ghost/Professor/Policeman. (Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio)
Dori Morgan's costumes are rather nondescript but entirely appropriate for these ordinary folks. Lianne Arnold's scenic design turns a bare stage into a variety of locations merely by adding furniture and computer projections that appear on the playing space ceiling.
Premiere Stages is well known for tackling topical issues—not your usual summer fare. Despite its being confusing, Water by the Spoonful is ultimately an optimistic play about redemption and love. It offers us some consolation in the midst of the terrible problem of opioid addiction.
Water by the Spoonful will be presented at the Zella Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, through July 31. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908-737-SHOW (7469) or visit www.kean.edu/premierestages online.