Review: ‘Water by the Spoonful’ at SF Playhouse (***1/2)

The cast of ‘Water by the Spoonful’ at San Francisco Playhouse (L-R: Xander DeAngeles, Dorian Lockett, Sango Tajima, Salim Razawi, Lisa Ramirez, Lara Maria, Ben Euphrat). Photo Credit: Lisa Palopoli

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

One of the characters in Quiara Alegría Hudes’  Pulitzer prize-winning play, “Water by the Spoonful” is a music professor and composer. Early on in the proceedings, she shares some reflections on the meaning of disonance as she desribes her first lesson in composition. Her teacher complimented her  efforts, but encouraged her to listen to several discordant chords before returning to her composing. He wants her to understand that great music cannot be built solely on harmonious passages, but must include an awareness of the beauty of the discordant as well. 

The speech is significant as a metaphor for the very discordant history of the Ortiz family, the substance of the play. Elliot Ortiz (Xander DeAngeles), a former marine, is struggling with his grief for the passing of his Aunt Ginny, who raised him as a child and for whom he has been a caretaker as she was dying of cancer. His cousin, Ginny’s daughter Yazmin, the musician, is undergoing a divorce. 

The struggles of Elliot and Yazmin are counterpointed by the struggles of a recovering crack addict who runs an online recovery forum where she is known as Haikumom and whose members include a young woman known as Orangutan and a man calling himself Chutes and Ladders, and a new member, a man called Fountainhead. 

As the play unfolds, we learn that Haikumom is actually Elliot’s estranged mother, Odessa, Aunt Ginny’s sister. 

All of this complexity is very confusing at first but this is overcome—especially in the second act, following an intermission—as the lines connecting the stories of these various people become clear. 

Aunt Ginny, recently deceased, is a saint-like figure, whose loving and attentive presence embraces the suffering of all the other characters, whose stories and conflicts are gradually  and ever-more-deeply explored. 

Much is revealed of Odessa’s painful history as a crack addict, and her six years of recovery. We learn, too, of her son Elliot’s own struggles with painkillers and the ghosts that haunt him from his war experiences. The intimate connections of the family and the stories of the crack addicts seeking recovery eventually combine into a complex emotional—a symphony  of both harmony and discord. 

Not everything is resolved, but by the end of this play, audiences will have experienced an emotional rollercoaster and arrived at a feeling that life, for all the suffering that comes along, can be beautiful. It is a simple enough message, beautifully delivered. 

The play is somewhat disjointed and episodic, and in its early scenes a bit confusing, but as it moves along and the depth of the narration increases, it pays off well. 

There are wonderful performances by a highly skilled cast, above all Lisa Ramirez’s deeply moving performance as the crack addict Odessa, whose emotional range is extraordinary. 

If you go the theatre to have a good cry and be reminded of the amazing ways that suffering and joy, harmony and discord, can be compounded, “Water by the Spoonful” will fit the bill perfectly. 

“Water by the Spoonful” plays at the San Francisco Playhouse through April 23, 2022. For further information or to purchase tickets, click here

Rating: ***1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes, produced by SF Playhouse and Gary and Dana Shapiro. Director: Denise Blasor. Scenic Designer: Catalina Niño. Costume Designer: Marisely Cortés Fonseca. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: Teddy Hulsker. Properties Designer: Stephanie Dittbern. Fight Choregrapher: Xander DeAngeles.

Cast:

Elliot Ortiz: Xander DeAngeles. Fountainhead: Ben Euphrat. Chutes & Ladders: Dorian Lockett. Yazmin Ortiz: Lara Maria. Odessa Ortiz aka Haikumom: Lisa Ramirez. A Ghost/Professor Aman/Policeman: Salim Razawi. Orangutan: Sango Tajima.

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