The notion of peer support groups that help link people with common issues has existed for centuries, really taking off in the self-aware, self-help 1970’s. With the advent of computer technology, their role has expanded enormously, and Internet video conference technology has facilitated virtual face-to-face with the additional advantages of eliminating drive time and allowing remote participation. But before Zoom, there were computer chat rooms. While chat communication lacks visual or aural elements, it does offer the characteristic of anonymity, which includes greater ease of making misrepresentation.
In action that shifts back and forth between scenarios, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ clever 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning “Water by the Spoonful” follows two seemingly independent threads through Act 1. One is a chat group for recovering cocaine addicts. The other concerns two young adult, Puerto Rican American cousins bereaving the passing of one’s mother. The threads will intertwine in Act 2.
A small but lively and committed group who are in various stages of recovery participates in the addicts’ chat. But first a note on the acting. Similar to the treatment of plays about letter exchanges, like “Dear Liar” or “Dear Elizabeth,” the actual communications are on paper or computer monitors, but the actors speak the words, often directed toward the audience in a stand-and-deliver fashion. I feel that I say this in a number of reviews, but the acting by this cast is spot on.
In “Water by the Spoonful,” the mysterious facilitator who goes by Haikumom, is superbly played by Lisa Ramirez. She wryly smiles, cajoling and controlling the interchanges with her charges, but she can also turn on the emotion. Haikumom also acknowledges still craving and that “staying clean is like tap dancing on a minefield.” “Chutes&Ladders” is the handle for an IRS Help Desk jockey who has been clean for several years and is played by a jocular Dorian Lockett. The spritely Sango Tajima is “Orangutan.” A more recent addict, she left the U.S. to teach English in Japan in order to escape temptations. That core group is engaging and the characters sympathetic. The good news is that if you expect a play about addicts to be largely grim and grisly, it’s not. The bad news is that their being so cheery and well-adjusted may not feel realistic.
Enter “Fountainhead,” a successful young entrepreneur with a history of accomplishments played by an appropriately uptight Ben Euphrat. His presence irks the veterans, because it’s not clear that he is even off cocaine; his credibility is brought into question; and he seems very self-involved. We will later learn that he is not the only one lying, something that is easy to do in a chat room.
In the second thread, Lara Maria portrays Yazmin, who hoped for Julliard and a career playing music, but instead teaches music in primary school. Xander DeAngeles is cousin Elliot, a former Marine relegated to working in a Subway shop, but who has done modeling gigs for Spanish-language television. Yazmin’s mother, who had been a pillar of the community, endlessly giving, has passed. The cousins prepare funeral arrangements, but they are financially challenged and need to turn to other sources.
To describe the multiple intersections of the scenarios in Act 2 would give away too much of the drama. The playwright is clearly concerned with addiction, referring to the first day without coke to be the “first day of your life.” Also revealed is how dependency ruins relationships, impedes career development, and causes risk to other.
Hudes examines anonymous relationships, which have become even more prevalent in the era of social media. Anonymity is a leveling agent that often gives shy people the courage to advance their convictions. The less that is known about a person, the more that person’s thoughts are considered on their own merit rather than by attribution, reflective of the Delphi technique. Haikumom credibly facilitates a group whose content has significant psychological and medical implications, but what are her credentials? Orangutan reaches out emotionally to Chutes&Ladders knowing nothing of him but his chat in the group. The nettlesome Fountainhead, whose selection of handle may say something about his self-evaluation, reaches an unexpected socio-emotional breakthrough not likely to have occurred in other circumstances.
Finally, the playwright expresses concern with family. Why are Yazmin, Elliott, and their clan so tight? How do individuals in the larger family deal with broken relationships? Are there some actions in families that can’t be forgiven? Despite guidance from religion, do they open their hearts to receive redemption?
The title of the play will raise questions in the minds of some readers. It is a treatment for severe diarrhea when a patient can’t keep anything down. Administer one spoon of water every several minutes indefinitely to avert dehydration. It is relevant to the play. Additionally, the hour after hour, day after day of such a treatment acts as a metaphor for the struggle with addiction rehabilitation.
The play is talky with little consequence through much of the duration. However, it is thoughtful, well produced, and the climaxes make it worthwhile.
“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and plays on their stage at 450 Post St., San Francisco, CA through April 23, 2022.