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When war’s heartache struck, playwright knew story to tell

Top: Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. Above (from left): “Water by the Spoonful”cast members Theresa Nguyen, Mariela Lopez-Ponce, and Johnny Lee Davenport.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Top: Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. Above (from left): “Water by the Spoonful”cast members Theresa Nguyen, Mariela Lopez-Ponce, and Johnny Lee Davenport.

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes grew up in a sprawling, close-knit Latino family in Philadelphia. There were cousins on every corner. The matriarchs protested for social justice and fed the hungry.

And they knew how to party. “There is a lot of joy in my family,” Hudes says. “We dance, play music together, and eat to our heart’s content.”

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When Hudes, a self-described “goody two-shoes,” graduated from high school, she went off to Yale University to study music, and then to Brown University to study playwriting. When her cousin Elliot Ruiz graduated from high school, he went off to war.

Ruiz joined the Marines in June 2002, and less than a year later, he was deployed to Iraq. Within a few weeks of active duty, he was critically injured, his leg torn apart. He had a long, painful recovery, including 14 surgeries.

“Elliot has a social gift,” Hudes says. “You put him in any room, and he will sparkle.” But when she visited him while he was recovering in California, she noticed something different. The sparkle was still there, but he had changed. “I knew I had to tell his story,” she says.

And tell it she did, with her award-winning “Elliot” trilogy. The first play, “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” was a 2007 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The second, “Water by the Spoonful,” won that prize last year. The play, which unfolds in North Philly after Elliot has returned home, opens Sunday after two days of previews and runs through Nov. 16 at the Lyric Stage. (The third play, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” debuted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in April.)

Hudes began her research by interviewing her cousin and other family members. Some parts are fictionalized, but much about the character of Elliot is true to life. Like the character in the play, Ruiz was raised by his great-aunt and great-uncle, who took him in at six months because his biological mother was a crack addict. (She has been clean for more than a decade.) Like Ruiz, Elliot is injured in the war, an experience that forces him to grow up. “When I left, I was a 17-year-old kid who went around the street chasing the girls and trying to have the newest sneakers out,’’ says Ruiz, 28, who now works as a manager for a California company that owns and manages convalescent homes. “I was put into a situation where I was forced to become a man.”

‘I didn’t want to write a play about addiction. I wanted to write about healing and recovery.’

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He recalls his injury with the kind of matter-of-factness — and sense of humor — that comes across in the play. His unit was on a mission to rescue seven US soldiers being held hostage in a small town. It was around midnight, near the end of his patrol, when he was struck by an onrushing car that had targeted the troops. He used his belt for a tourniquet and had to wait a few hours before he was airlifted to Kuwait. “A lot of the guys were fearing for the worst,’’ he recalls. “I could tell, because they were offering me Skittles and cigarettes, which were like gold out there. When they offer you Skittles, you know it’s not looking good.”

His cousin was one of the first people he trusted with his story, and he immediately agreed when Hudes told him she wanted to dramatize the tale. “Whatever she wanted, I was down with it,” he recalls.

Though Elliot is the central character in “Water by the Spoonful,” it also tells the story of four recovering addicts who meet and interact in an online recovery chat room. The play intersperses their struggles and triumphs with the story of Elliot and his cousin Yaz, who are mourning the death of a relative.

Water is a recurring symbol: The characters water a garden, sprinkle ashes into a waterfall, and recall a tragic incident involving a spoonful of water. “Water, as we know, is very spiritual,” Hudes says. “It is part of the natural process of life, how people are baptized, how we survive. I think of water as essential to caretaking and healing. I didn’t want to write a play about addiction. I wanted to write about healing and recovery.”

All of the characters are damaged in some way, and Hudes deliberately chose to depict the online community as a force for good, rather than presenting the Internet as dangerous tool that depersonalizes human connection. The four addicts, who have never met in person, help each other survive.

“The play shows something beautiful and remarkable about how humans are finding connections with each other through technology,” says Scott Edmiston, who is directing the Lyric production. “People used to gather at a well or at the community pool. Now our connections happen through technology. The water cooler is now Facebook.”

When she was researching the play, Hudes went online and read transcripts of recovery chat rooms. She attended open recovery meetings in New York, where she lives with her husband and two children, and interviewed counselors at the Institute of Living in Hartford, where the play debuted at Hartford Stage in 2011. She always does a lot of research for her plays, which include the book for the hit musical “In the Heights.”

“It’s a great excuse to immerse myself in a part of the world that I don’t understand,’’ Hudes says. “It’s an opportunity to learn something new. That’s how I felt when researching these plays. I was this Puerto Rican girl from Philly who went to Quaker meetings, and I was writing about war.”

She got engrossed in the stories she read online. “I found myself rooting for the people in the chat rooms just to make it through another day,” she says. “To me, this is my living-room play, but the living room happens to be online.”

The inspiration for the addicts in the play came from her cousin’s experience as a wounded Marine. “You had all these kids coming back, and they were screaming in pain,’’ Ruiz says. “You had doctors who hadn’t dealt with trauma, and their answer was pain medicine. They pump you full of stuff. It was bad. It looked like a crack house, and I was one of them, all drugged up trying to fight the pain.”

Ruiz confronted the problem on his own; one day, he simply went cold turkey. “I had dozens of bottles of pain meds, and I took them all and dropped them in the toilet,’’ he says. “I let them sit there until they broke up into powder.”

Some of those he served with couldn’t make that break and went on to other forms of substance abuse. That made Hudes’s research even more intense. She kept a box of tissues on her desk while she wrote the play. She also listened to the music of John Coltrane, specifically his groundbreaking album “A Love Supreme.” Jazz is central to the play: Elliot’s cousin, Yaz, is a college music professor, and she teaches her students about dissonance, resolution, and freedom in Coltrane’s music.

For the Lyric production, Hudes reached out to leaders of the Boston Latino community in a letter encouraging them to see the play.

She started this kind of outreach at Hartford Stage when the original cast of “Water by the Spoonful” noticed that no one in the audience appeared to be Latino. “My grandmother told me, ‘You have to invite people to eat at your table,’ ’’ she says. “I thought, ‘Let me just invite them.’ As much as I would love to be a poet in a room alone writing plays, I realized that is a pipe dream. I need to invite people to a place at the table.”

One person who has an open invitation is Ruiz, who has attended the openings of all three plays. Hudes remembers being extremely nervous when her cousin first saw “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue.” “I thought, ‘What right did I have to write this play?’ ’’ she says. “He was sitting next to me, and I was shaking uncontrollably. Then the tears started coming, and we cried together.”

Ruiz willingly gave his story to his cousin, and as tough as it is to relive intense moments in his life — “The first time I saw it, I was sobbing. I couldn’t talk” — he says that across her three plays, she captured the entire family’s story. He also emphasizes that “Water by the Spoonful” presents a realistic picture of Iraq War veterans and their road to recovery, both physical and spiritual. “We are fed so much war on television, and it is so easy for people to put a ribbon on the back of the car that says, ‘I support the troops,’ ’’ Ruiz says. “But I don’t think people are in touch with what goes on when these guys come back. That is a story I wanted to see told.”

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com.
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