THEATER REVIEW: “Water By The Spoonful” at The Old Globe

Most of the characters in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Water By The Spoonful” are living on the edge – of addiction, of job insecurity, of squalor, perhaps even of reality or the bounds of society.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play (whose main character Elliot is based on a family member) is the second in her trilogy of “Elliot” plays about a 20-something Iraq war veteran trying to get off pain meds and back to something like a normal life. It plays through May 11 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

A war injury has brought Elliot Ortiz (Rey Lucas) home to Philadelphia. Now he makes hoagies in a sandwich shop and tries to avoid the ghost who’s been haunting him since Iraq.

Odessa Ortiz (Marilyn Torres) has her own addiction problem. A recovering crack addict, she runs an Internet chat room for fellow addicts, where we will meet Fountainhead aka John (Robert Eli), a computer programmer and entrepreneur; Maine resident Orangutan (Ruibo Qian), and IRS pencil-pusher and San Diegan Chutes&Ladders (Keith Randolph Smith).

Elliot’s cousin Yazmin (Sarah Nina Hayon), a trained pianist and John Coltrane fan, would like to be playing jazz but instead teaches about it as an adjunct professor of music.

These are characters trying to hang on and make their lives better, which for some of them may be happening a spoonful at a time. That spoonful has other connections which I’ll leave you to discover.

There is a no dearth of books and plays about addiction. Most of them feature colorful characters with outsized actions and words. Hudes’ characters are quieter, human-sized, each with a problem they are ashamed of and want desperately to conquer.

This story plays out between the real world and the online world of Odessa’s chat room, the logistical problem of online chat neatly solved by scenic designer Ralph Funicello with Odessa at an onstage computer and the other chatters ranged in the White’s aisles.

Edward Torres’ sensitive direction and a strong cast make this rather flawed script work. Lucas’ Elliot, dealing with the triple pains of early maternal abandonment and the wartime scars of injury and the horror of willful killing-to-order, demonstrates both the damage and the hope of a better outcome.

Hayon’s Yazmin (the only non-addict in the group) shows the grit she’ll need to overcome her own problems: a failed marriage and a second-choice job.

Marilyn Torres will break your heart as the recovering addict Odessa, trying to overcome her dark past and help others in the process.

Qian and Smith are convincing (though Qian’s voice doesn’t always carry) as denizens of Odessa’s chat room, in search of sobriety and human connection.

Eli is recognizable as the addict who first needs to admit the problem to himself and his wife.

This play could use some trimming and a clearer exposition of family relationships. A genealogy chart in the program helps, but any play that requires that (and isn’t based on a Russian novel) needs a rewrite.

The details

“Water By The Spoonful” plays through May 11 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm.; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.

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