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Stage Review

A stirring ‘Water by the Spoonful’ at Lyric Stage

Theresa Nguyen and Johnny Lee Davenport in “Water by the Spoonful.’’

Mark S. Howard

Theresa Nguyen and Johnny Lee Davenport in “Water by the Spoonful.’’

The damage caused by war and drugs is usually self-evident; that caused by family, less so.

But as Quiara Alegría Hudes reminds us in “Water by the Spoonful,’’ family — a category that can include the ones we create as well as the ones we’re born into — also has the power to heal.

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Hudes was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last year for “Water by the Spoonful,’’ the second in a trilogy that includes “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue’’ and “The Happiest Song Plays Last.’’ You’ll understand why she received that honor if you see, as I’d strongly urge you to do, the moving, well-acted production of “Water by the Spoonful’’ that is now at Lyric Stage Company, directed by Scott Edmiston.

Though Hudes doesn’t entirely avoid facile moments, I was impressed by the compassion at the heart of this young playwright’s vision, one that encompasses all manner of human frailty. Edmiston possesses a similarly nuanced understanding of the complexities at work within families, evident in his productions of “Other Desert Cities’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ at New Repertory Theatre, to name just two, and on display again at Lyric Stage.

Several of the characters in “Water by the Spoonful’’ carry a terrible burden of guilt, for deeds done or undone; they face an anguished reckoning with the past. Yet not one of us, Hudes suggests, is ultimately beyond redemption.

The play’s story unfolds in a pair of parallel narratives. One involves Elliot Ortiz, an ex-Marine who served in Iraq and is played, with a kind of visible ache, by Gabriel Rodriguez, a graduate of Emerson College. Elliot, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is working in a sandwich shop in Philadelphia as he tries to jump-start his acting career. His pronounced limp attests to the severe leg injury he suffered in the war, while frequent appearances by the ghost of an Iraqi man (Zaven Ovian) attest to the psychic wound Elliot carries around with him. He also has to cope with a devastating personal loss — not for the first time.

Amid these wrenching crosscurrents, Elliot has a one-woman support system in the form of his cousin, Yazmin, portrayed with warmth and depth by Sasha Castroverde, making a welcome return to the theater where she shone so vividly in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.’’ (It’s rare that a play gives the relationships between cousins as much dimension as “Water by the Spoonful’’ does.) Although Yazmin is the most together person on the stage, she is nonetheless in search of a purpose, or at least a direction, in the wake of a jolting divorce.

The play’s other story line depicts the interactions among a group of recovering crack addicts in an Internet chat room (their online monikers are visible on computer screens that hang above the stage).

The site is administered by the outwardly serene Odessa, whose handle is Haikumom.
She is sensitively portrayed by Mariela Lopez-Ponce. As Chutes&Ladders, a middle-aged IRS bureaucrat itching to break free from the psychological prison he’s built for himself, the reliably excellent Johnny Lee Davenport skillfully conveys a mixture of tentativeness and yearning. Equally fine are Theresa Nguyen as Orangutan, a young Japanese-American woman in search of her familial roots, and Gabriel Kuttner as John, a.k.a. Fountainhead, a once-prosperous businessman whose life is steadily spiraling out of control.

Hudes’s depiction of the way our virtual selves and our “real’’ selves feed into, reinforce, or contradict each other feels very of-the-moment, as does her portrait of an online community whose architecture is uncertain yet resilient, one whose members, for all their differences, need one another to keep from backsliding into drug use.

“Water by the Spoonful’’ is at its most compelling, though, when its two narratives converge, and Elliot and Yazmin come into contact with two members of the chat room — including one with whom they share a significant history.

Hudes’s play is rife with representations of or allusions to water, a leitmotif given visual punctuation by the aquatic dark-blue of Richard Wadsworth Chambers’s set. By the end, Hudes’s title evokes not just a past event that is central to the underlying dynamics of “Water by the Spoonful,’’ but also the absolution or forgiveness or at least partial reconciliation we humans can receive or achieve, bit by painful bit.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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