There’s something slightly off about University Theatre’s current production of Water by the Spoonful, the Pulitzer-winning second installment in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy of plays about a returning Iraqi War vet who struggles to reintegrate himself into civilian life in the U.S.
There’s a sense that the play itself, with its intersecting storylines and themes of addiction and alienation, proves too weighty, too loaded with significance for the crew at UT to handle: The production, directed by Theresa May, is at once overly reverential and lacking in confidence. There is too much and too little going on, and the result is not so much a failure as a kind of stillbirth — something that never gathers into the emotional sum of its constituent parts.
Taken individually, those parts are interesting and often moving. As battled-scarred Elliot (Michael Teague) deals with his Puerto Rican family and a dead-end job at a sandwich shop in Philadelphia, we witness the young man’s chronic isolation, especially evident his haunting by an Iraqi ghost (Ryan Sayegh). Elliot himself is a kind of ghost, a flickering figure incapable of coming to terms with a violent past and an incomprehensible present; and his future, therefore, is not just uncertain but terrifying.
Alongside Elliot’s story runs that of his estranged mother, Odessa (Zeina Salame), a 12-stepper who runs an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts, a group that includes the sassy Orangutan (Allie Murakami), the middle-aged Chutes & Ladders (Isaiah Nixon) and Fountainhead (Riley Olson), a successful businessman in denial about his habit. As these people seek to connect and heal over vast digital distances, we find a mirror for Elliot’s own sense of isolation.
Hudes’ play is innovative in the way it juggles this tangle of stories that weaves around and through itself on stage, jumping across geography and time to reveal the source of Elliot’s pain. The problem is, the collected stories never gain the necessary momentum. Moments of revelation or catharsis or forgiveness get lost amid a clutter of technique and flourishes, such as the heavy reliance on recorded music to accentuate the jazzy nature of Hudes’ narrative style. Scenes occurring simultaneously on stage tend to override each other, blurring the focus for both.
Such over-determination leads to a play that seems bent on proving its relevance rather than telling its tale — a thing more academic than felt. This is understandable: Addiction and PTSD are pervasive contemporary concerns with no easy solution. They touch us all. But UT makes the mistake of turning Water by the Spoonful into an object lesson rather than an object of art. — Rick Levin
Water by the Spoonful runs through Jan. 31 at UO’s Hope Theatre; tickets.uoregon.edu or 346-4363.