Now that spring has finally arrived and it’s possible to travel beyond campus bounds without risking frostbite, perhaps a trip to Smith College to see their production of “Water by the Spoonful” could be added to your spring itinerary. Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, “Water by the Spoonful” premiered in October of 2011 at the Hartford Stage Company and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012. Smith College Department of Theater’s adaptation of the play, directed by J. Mehr Kaur, adds an extra dimension to the original version, emphasizing the power of connectivity.
Hudes’ play follows six characters as they unpack their grim pasts and deal with their grim futures, four of them as past crack addicts. Their addictions have cost them dearly, severing relationships with their loved ones and forcing them into a life of isolation. Hudes’ writing adds a warm and comedic tone to the dark story, exhibiting people’s good nature as they reach out and connect with others through their complicated past.
The story primarily follows Elliot Ortiz (played by Ryan Jucobucci) an ex-marine who was injured in battle and is haunted by a traumatic experience he had in Iraq. He is a Puerto Rican from Philadelphia who works at a Subway shop, taking care of his sick mother. Elliot is close to his cousin, Yaz (played by Madigan Drummond) who helps him cope with his mother’s passing. Yaz, the star cousin who had “made it” after becoming a professor at Swarthmore and getting married, is coping with her divorce and finds herself coming back into her family after her aunt’s death.
The play is part of a trilogy written by Hudes which center around the Ortiz family. The first, “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and the final installment, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” was produced at the Goodman Theater in 2013.
The Ortizes’ story alternates with the story of an online chat room where four of the main characters join to discuss their crack addiction. The actors participate in a dialogue and act as though they are in a room together. However, their LOLs, emoji references and censorship remind us that this is chat room discussion. The administrator of the site, Odessa, known as Haikumom to the group, tries to keep Orangutan (Madeline, played by Kitty Lixin Lin) and Chutes&Ladders (Clayton played by Mark Hawkins) peaceful towards their new friend Fountainhead, or John, who refuses to call himself a crackhead due to his identity as an upper class white male.
Odessa, the mother hen of the group chat played by Marleny Heredia, is Elliot’s estranged birth mother. But when her sister, Elliot’s adoptive mother, passes away she is forced to deal with her disappointed family once again. Her relationship to Elliot and the rest of the Ortiz clan is complicated and messy due to her past mistakes.
Hudes manages to make all six character rich and complex without making the play feel like it’s stuffed full of too many storylines. The connection made between characters both online and in real life are genuine and shows that even if these characters have multiple skeletons in their closets, they are capable of redemption and goodness once more. The only connection that did seem a little forced to me was the one week between Madeline and Clayton, but that’s mostly because it took the typical Hollywood romantic spin that we’re all tired of.
One of the biggest critiques the play received when it premiered was that the set design was awkward and the difference between the electronic world and the real world were not clearly defined. The actors were supposed to pretend to be doing everyday things on individual chairs as they carried on their “online” conversation. The instructions weren’t very clear and therefore the play has had many different sets throughout its different productions. Smith’s take on the set, however, was phenomenal.
The stage, like the play itself, was unlike any other I’d seen before. There are two levels to the stage. A platform six feet off the stage floor represents the online world, while the stage in front of it depicts the real world. Behind the stage is a huge projector, which adds to the illusion of their Internet communication by displaying characters’ profile pictures when they come online as well as various other images they talk about. The actors talk face to face and move around each other on the online stage, instead of having to ignore each other as they say their lines, as the original script suggests.
The production was designed this way in order to “Emphasize the power of connectivity and the notion that the ‘connective revolution’ will not be screen-to-screen, but face-to-face,” the Smith Department of Theater said.
Yaz also mentions the musical concepts of soloing and dissonance in the play— these concepts are also reflected in the characters’ lives. Everyone in that chat room has a different background, but they all unite to help each other out in a fight they are all suffering through, even though they’ve never met in person. Older generations like to say a lot about our generation being addicted to the Internet and social media. They say we don’t know how to interact face to face and that deep relationships can’t be forged on the Internet. Hudes and the Smith Department of Theater defy that idea by showing that the internet actually enables our generation to form meaningful relationships that are just as, if not even more, empathetic as theirs.