"Water by the Spoonful" at Studio Theatre | WYPR

"Water by the Spoonful" at Studio Theatre

Apr 7, 2014

Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Haikumom. Water by the Spoonful at Studio Theatre.
Credit Teddy Wolff

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see "Water by the Spoonful" at Studio Theatre in Washington D.C. The production is up until April 13. 

The Rousuck Review: "Water by the Spoonful" at Studio Theatre 

A play set partly in an Internet chat room may not sound very theatrical. That’s just one of the challenges that playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes sets for herself in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Water by the Spoonful.”

She also tells the more inherently dramatic stories of an Iraq War veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; a Puerto Rican-American family struggling to cope with the death of its matriarch; and a group of recovering crack addicts – they’re the ones in the chat room.

What do these stories have in common? That’s what Hudes gradually – and surprisingly – reveals.

There’s a lot going on in “Water by the Spoonful.” It often seems like too much in director KJ Sanchez’ area premiere production at Studio Theatre in Washington. But even when the plot seems overwhelming, the characters and their unexpected connections hold your interest -- not just while you’re watching the play, but long afterward.

That’s partly because of the strong portrayals director Sanchez elicits from her seven-member cast, particularly Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey. Fernandez-Coffey plays the administrator of the chat room. Her screen name is “Haikumom” – for the uplifting little poems she posts. Fernandez-Coffey conveys a motherly persona, encouraging the others in the chat room, policing the site and censoring four-letter words.

Haikumom’s story alternates with the story of Elliot, the Iraq War veteran. Elliot supports his acting career by making sandwiches at Subway. Arturo Soria’s portrayal is a bit low-key. But it’s still clear that Elliot is trying hard to hold it all together: To ward off the Iraqi ghost that torments him in flashbacks and to grieve for his closest relative – the woman who raised him and held the whole family together.

As the play goes on, a startling connection is revealed between Elliot and Haikumom. And indeed, the importance of connections between people – sometimes between the most unlikely people – is at the heart of “Water by the Spoonful.”

Unlikely bonds are undoubtedly more common – and easier -- in chat rooms, where anonymity reigns and everyone hides behind a screen name. Director Sanchez and set and lighting designers Dan Conway and Michael Giannitti present the chat room scenes in a way that actually gives them humanity.

The only computer on stage belongs to Haikumom. When she and the other chat room members log on, their user names are projected on a pillar, while they appear on stage and speak their posts. Because we can see the people behind the user names, the audience knows more about the members of the chat room than they do about each other.

For example, we know that the woman calling herself “Orangutan” is a young Japanese-American, intensely portrayed by Amy Kim Waschke, and that the man who calls himself “Chutes&Ladders” is an aging black man, warmly played by Vincent J. Brown.

Connections aren’t just the theme of “Water by the Spoonful,” the play itself is connected to two other plays by Hudes. It’s the middle play in a trilogy focusing on the character of Elliot. The third play made its off-Broadway debut last month.

War and family figure into all three plays – big themes that Hudes confronts on small, character-driven canvases. While many of her contemporaries write about minutiae, her embrace is huge. She examines who and where we are as Americans – culturally and politically, as well as at home among family and friends.

Excessive? At times. But at Studio Theatre, “Water by the Spoonful” is also topical, important and, at its best, gripping.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck