Like characters in a Greek tragedy, ruled by the whims of the gods, most of the characters in “Water by the Spoonful” act in unpredictable and often self-destructive ways, as dictated by the whims of their addictions. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 play — which is currently being produced in New Jersey for the first time in the Premiere Stages series at Kean University in Union — is powerful but also abstract, with the characters often talking about themselves (not always honestly) instead of playing parts in a plot. It’s a play that’s easy to respect and perhaps a bit harder to love, but it does shed some light on one of the darkest aspects of modern life, with enough warmth and humor to keep it from being too bleak.
Crack has wreaked havoc on the family of Elliot (played by Sean Carvajal), a sandwich shop employee and Marine who was injured in the Iraq War. Elliot gets help and sympathy from his cousin Yazmin (Emma Ramos), a music professor whose marriage just fell apart. Elliot’s mother Odessa (Zuleyma Guevara) seems to have her addiction under control, and works as an administrator in an online chat room for recovering addicts.
In the play’s cleverest touch, the virtual interactions Odessa watches over are acted out by forum participants identified by their screen names: Orangutan (Kana Hatakeyama), Chutes&Ladders (Jamil A.C. Mangan) and Fountainhead (Zack Calhoon). Odessa is known to them only by the name Haikumom.
Orangutan, whose plan for keeping her addiction under control involves traveling to Japan, seems to be the polar opposite of the stodgy Chutes&Ladders, who is trying to live a life of tame routine in San Diego. But there’s still an attraction between these two that may grow into something more. Fountainhead is new to the group, and though he presents himself as having his life under control, Chutes&Ladders senses that something is amiss and confronts him, asking if he is being honest.
It’s an intensely realistic play, yet, as directed by Kel Haney, with scenic design by Lianne Arnold, it unfolds over a more-or-less blank canvas, and there are some magical touches, such as Elliot’s wartime nightmares taking three-dimensional form, and the floor of the stage opening up, near the end of the play, to add an important new element to the set.
“Water by the Spoonful” is basically the story of two families, a real one and an online one. Odessa/Haikumom plays vastly different roles in the two families: Elliot feels betrayed for her, as she was a horrendous mother during her years of addiction, and Yazmin doesn’t have much use for her, either. But her online family reveres her as a kind of mother figure who can share the wisdom she gained through her own recovery. There is healing in cyberspace.
Odessa/Haikumom’s two worlds eventually collide, after a crisis. And while there are some tentative resolutions, there is no hint that life ever can be anything more than a struggle for these people, just because of the unrelenting power that addiction holds.
“Water by the Spoonful” is at Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union through July 31; visit kean.edu/premierestages.