[This review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/09/connecting/.]
There's nothing more important than family. I would never make the mistakes my mother made. People don't change. Much of what gets expressed about family and community in life and popular culture is full of absolutist thinking like that reflected in such statements. But the reality of community is much messier, less linear.
So is the world of family and community reflected in "Water By the Spoonful," a play by Puerto Rican-American playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes that played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this past spring and resumes in September.
In the world of this play, communities (including families) are made up only of broken people. Young Elliot, recently returned from the Iraq war with a leg injury, is underemployed and caring for his aunt Ginny, who raised him when his biological mother (Ginny's sister Odessa) couldn't. Ginny is everything Odessa is not -- a true matriarch connected to place and community. Elliot seethes with nursed anger toward Odessa, a recovering crack addict living "one notch above squalor."
But the woman we meet isn't the one frozen in Elliot's memory. Odessa, who works as a part-time janitor, founded and administers a chat room for recovering addicts, and in that cyber world, she is a mama. Using the handle "Haikumom," she keeps the conversations safe, prods the participants to take care of themselves, and creates space for people at all stages of recovery.
Mother and son, however disconnected in life, are connected in ways neither recognizes. Elliot is wrestling with a secret addiction to painkillers, and is tormented by a brief missed connection during his time in Iraq that had tragic consequences. Odessa is five years clean, but her own pain over a tragic missed connection in Elliot's childhood jeopardizes her recovery, especially when Elliot refuses her grace that he needs himself.
Playwright Hudes, herself a musician, often finds musical inspiration for capturing the complicated rhythms of human interaction in her plays. Here she takes jazz as her inspiration--specifically the work of John Coltrane. His works, "A Love Supreme" and "Ascendance" feature a complex wall of sound that achieves a kind of transcendent dissonance. It's a fitting metaphor for attempts at connection among people who are in pain; who are worlds apart in age, geography, or experience; who are broken.
Elliot's cousin, Yaz, is a music professor who teaches about Coltrane. Disappointed in her life and relationships, she struggles with Elliot to care for an ailing Ginny and to make sense of her connection to the family, in the face of success that leaves her isolated in both the academic world and her home community.
The worlds and relationships in the play exist in a mixture of isolation and connection. Haikumom and her diverse chatroom family -- a young Japanese adoptee seeking to find her birth parents; a middle-aged IRS agent who has left behind any hope of reconnection with the family he failed, and an executive who minimizes his addiction -- reach, in fits and starts, to connect deeply. All have burned through relationships and long for a sense of belonging.
This production cleverly places the participants in these chatroom conversations on small islands on the stage, where they interact with energy but in isolation from each other. The visual captures a dynamic that arguably exists in all attempts at connection. The blood family of Elliot, Yaz, Odessa, and Ginny is an interesting contrast. How much does blood matter? Physical space? Is it easier to connect in the anonymity of a chatroom? Does that matter?
The play wrestles fruitfully with such questions. The characters -- addicts in all phases of recovery, the educated, the poor, the grieving, the unforgiven -- fail each other in small ways, reel from the pain of past failures, shut each other out, judge too harshly. But also, sometimes, they come through for one another. It's not didactic; there is no moral to the story. Rather, the play is a call to connection, and a depiction of just how messy and beautiful that can be.
You can catch "Water by the Spoonful" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland from September to November. Among the other terrific options at OSF this summer and fall are "The Cocoanuts" (a boisterous Marx Brothers' musical that feels hilariously contemporary); "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (delightfully staged with an all-female cast--what bliss to watch women sample the rich array of roles typically denied them!), and "Richard III" (featuring a wonderfully ruthless king with a biting wit).