There’s a hole in the stage. It’s ragged and stony and the first row of the audience is staring uncomfortably into its belly, as it opens black before them. Above, shrouds hang, translucent and grey. The scene brings to mind “Macbeth’s” cold Scottish castle more than a North Philadelphia living room, and yet Philly is where Quiara Alegría Hudes’s “Water by the Spoonful,” playing now at Court Theatre, begins. Even when the play takes us to Swarthmore, to Japan, to Puerto Rico, the hole remains, demanding our attention. It’s a locus of addiction, of failure, of despair, ever visible. But rather than falling in, the characters in “Water” coexist with the pit. They try to understand it, edge around it, and most importantly, they hold one another back from its depths.
Hudes’s “Water by the Spoonful,” winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is the second in a trilogy of plays. “The Elliot Cycle” focuses on the eponymous Elliot Ortiz (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a Puerto Rican veteran of the Iraq War living in North Philadelphia with his ailing mother. Directed at Court by of Henry Godinez, “Water” brings in Elliot’s estranged birth mother, Odessa (Charin Alvarez), a moderator of an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts, and his cousin Yazmin (Yadira Correa), an adjunct music professor.
Each play in the “The Elliot Cycle” has a different musical motif: the first has Bach at its core, the third Puerto Rican folk music. “Water” uses free jazz, mainly through Yazmin’s teaching and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (thought to be Coltrane’s answer to his own struggles with alcoholism and addiction). Yazmin (shortened to “Yaz”) tells her students, “Coltrane democratized the notes. He said they’re all equal.” The meaning of jazz rests on the spaces between the notes, rather than the notes alone. Yaz makes the point that dissonance can quickly dissolve into noise, but when it’s balanced, there’s a beauty in the seeming chaos.
This logic of dissonance is, oddly enough, what holds the show together. Odessa’s chatroom addresses this point most clearly: the members are misfits, brought together by their addictions and the safety of Internet anonymity. Orangutan is an adopted Japanese-American woman who moves to Japan to find her birth parents. Chutes&Ladders is a prissy IRS agent. A newcomer, Fountainhead, is a former CEO with a yellow Porsche and a great deal of denial. They argue bitterly but honestly, revealing the more fragile parts of themselves, the parts that need others’ help. Each struggles with their competing desires: their near-irresistible addictions and their desperation to stay sober.
Odessa ends up as the most compelling character. Her good moments are a product of her bad ones, and vice versa. She is at war with herself, but she holds each side in check as best she can until the balance, about two-thirds through the play, is thrown off to disastrous effect. Charin Alvarez is wonderfully understated in the role, a portrait of both resignation and resilience. Odessa is haggard, visibly tired from fighting for years against a desire that doesn’t simply ebb with time, and Alvarez conveys the full extent of Odessa’s guilt, of her anger at herself and her frustration with her family, as well as Odessa’s competing selves. In one moment, as she discusses Zen Buddhism with Fountainhead, her phone rings and she delivers terse, expletive-laden directions to her son. Alvarez manages this self-contradiction with astounding ease, her jaw and shoulders slackening as she returns to a shocked Fountainhead. “My family knows every button to push,” she sighs.
But to make notes clash effectively, you have to consider why they’re clashing, and what they’re clashing with. This is lost at points: Yaz’s self-reflection is superficial and Elliot’s relationship to addiction only weakly followed up. Elliot’s wider experiences feel unexplored as well. He is dealing with the cancer of his surrogate mother and fallout from his tour in Iraq; the injury he got there gives him a pronounced limp, but his emotions, though often extreme, are at times unconvincing. Moving from one emotional pole to the other, something of Elliot is lost in transition. His emotions serve more as devices to move the plot than as true reflections of character, and this detracts from the richness of dissonance evidenced elsewhere in the play.
In spite of this, Elliot’s relationship with Yaz is easily the strongest in “Water,” or rather the one in the least danger of crumbling. Sanchez and Correa’s repartee is honest and warm, their arguments punctuated with good-natured humor and comforting familiarity. Unlike any other relationship in the play, theirs is never in question. They are cousins, they grew up together, and there is no threat of abandonment between them. Elsewhere, relationships are trickier. Orangutan vanishes for three months, setting the rest of the chatroom group on edge. Fountainhead refuses to tell his wife about his addiction. Elliot has not forgiven Odessa for her neglect. But they aren’t so tricky that, even as the pit gapes before them, the characters find themselves alone in their community, or among their keepers and their friends.
Although “Water by the Spoonful” sometimes shades into melodrama, its true and beating heart is enough to keep it going. At its simplest, the play is a portrayal of the unrelenting struggle against the pull of the hole in the center of the stage. It tells us that we can lose everything if we stray into the pit, but also that others are waiting at the edge to pull us back out. Each character’s decisions bring them to its edge, and Hudes shows us that sometimes we must turn outward for help, to those who care for us, in order to take care of ourselves. Dissonant notes can fade away, but people, from crack addicts to war veterans, have to find some way to survive with the contradictions they’ve become.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through April 6. See site for showtimes. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org