I confess: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was never my town. The notion of family rooted in the same rural village for generations is light years from my reality as the grandchild of immigrants and a migrant military brat. Similarly, despite Wilder’s innovations in dramatic technique, the human condition as portrayed through Grovers Corners seems abnormally normal. The young fall in love and marry; people die, one prematurely in childbed, another lost to war—the patterns of human activity evolve like the seasons, seemingly immune to the sort of frenzy that rattles contemporary life.
The insular, slow-paced world of Our Town gets a radical update in Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful, enjoying a split-run in the Thomas Theatre (it ran until June 20 and then runs again September 4-November 2). Like Wilder’s ground-breaking play, this Pulitzer prize winner, transparently directed by Shishir Kurup, follows the lives of two families by spotlighting meaningful moments rather than a single, propulsive line of action. It also lends itself to minimalist staging. Designer Sybil Wickersheimer’s floorplan for Water perfectly echoes the fragmentary structure—two rows of luminous white square platforms with paths between. The separate platforms suggest the inverse of Wilder’s tight-knit community, yet in the end, recurring water images give birth to a projected waterfall, which floods and unites them all.
The Ortiz family left Puerto Rico for a barrio in Philadelphia. Second generation Yazmin (Nancy Rodriguez) is the success: her musical gifts have earned her a graduate degree and an adjunct college teaching job. Her cousin Elliott (Daniel Jose Molina) has had a tougher go. Though he aspires to an acting career, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, saw combat in Iraq, and got his leg torn up there. Other family members remain offstage, evoked through nostalgic narrative, even the most important and heroic Aunt Ginny. A community activist and mother to everyone, she is dying of cancer, and the news of her end comes via cell phone to Elliott and Yaz, as he fills a Subway order and she delivers a lecture on jazz.
The second family in this play is the creation of Odessa (Vilma Silva), a recovering crack addict. As Haikumom, she moderates an online chatroom for crackheads struggling to stay sober. Although the text of the play treats her identification as Elliott’s biological mother as a second-act revelation, the juxtaposition of the two families is more powerful, and less confusing, if we know of her connection to and estrangement from the Ortizes. For as Yaz and Elliott grapple with Ginny’s death, Odessa referees scenes of cyber-confrontation among Orangutan (Celeste Den), Chutes and Ladders (Bruce A. Young), and Fountainhead (Barret O’Brien)—the challenged souls whom she has transformed into her replacement family—multiracial, globe-spanning—about as far from Grovers Corners as you can get.
It doesn’t take long for this ersatz family to absorb all the interest and empathy in the theatre. Den’s Orangutan, a young woman who was adopted from Japan by a couple in Maine, can’t control either her flippant mouth or her flapping limbs, yet she has the candor and courage to reach out when in need. Young is dead-on as the middle-aged, African-American GS-4 bureaucrat, who has accepted low-risk monotony as the price of survival. As he takes the gigantic steps necessary to meet Orangutan in Japan, simply to offer her “a flesh-and-blood hand to grasp onto,” he emerges as a near-mythic hero. Barrett fascinates as the unemployed CEO with the chronic smile—his delivery insinuating that Fountainhead’s just-right bio and resume is just plain wrong. One of the best moments in the play catches his bravado and denial giving way. He and Chutes and Ladders have been at each other’s virtual throats. Fountainhead makes a remark about his dealer. Chutes and Ladders taps out a cross-country correction—“your ex-dealer”—and Fountainhead returns a genuine, “Thanks.” He later joins Haikumom for a riveting face-to-face, during which we see how well-organized and dedicated she is to helping her chatroom protégées.
This scene introduces the onstage collision of the two families. We’ve come to know the Ortizes through Yaz and Elliott’s nostalgic narratives. We’ve also watched the two cousins spar affectionately over peripheral issues, watched and been impatient to get back to the fireworks of the other family. For of all the problems Ginny’s death might have unleashed, for some reason the cousins concentrate on a decision to purchase exorbitantly expensive flowers for her funeral. This leads them to interrupt the meeting between Fountainhead and Odessa to inform her that she must pitch in to cover the cost. When she balks, Elliott recounts the horrific incident in her fatally disorganized past. In response, she tells him to pawn her computer. Again incomprehensibly, Yaz and Elliott do just that—getting $15 toward the $500 bill they’ve incurred—and causing terrible (altogether predictable) harm.
This arc does not leave Yaz and Elliott looking very good. Yaz will recover some of our respect when she decides to trade in her grand piano to buy Ginny’s house and take on Ginny’s altruistic role in the Puerto Rican community. But Elliott, who admits without remorse to driving his mother to relapse, goes off to Hollywood to make a film about Iraq, armed a little too fortuitously with the card given him by a professor of Arab Studies early in the opening scene.
Water by the Spoonful is the middle play of Hudes’s The Elliott Trilogy, yet Elliott is its least interesting character. The Iraqi ghost that trails him remains undeveloped; in fact, war trauma is displaced by childhood trauma as the reason for Elliott’s inability to connect and feel. Perhaps the third play opens a door to his growth and forgiveness of himself and others.
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)