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"Water By the Spoonful" is real and unreal at the same time How the director stages both worlds at once

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Water By the Spoonful is mostly realistic, but sometimes, it hovers just above the actual world. Sometimes, when people struggle with addiction, they step outside their bodies and look at what they've become. Sometimes, when an act of kindness changes several lives, it gets framed by a beautiful light.

In other words, Quiara Alegría Hudes' play, now at Second Stage, aims to tell a story that's small and large at the same time.

On one hand, the show follows a working-class Philadelphia family---including Elliot, a soldier trying to readjust to civilian life; his cousin Yaz, who wants to work in academia without abandoning her roots; and his mother Odessa, who manages her demons by running an online support group for crack addicts.

On the other hand, the play, which won last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, asks large, poetic questions about belonging to a group of people. It asks us to consider what happens when we have a community and what happens when we don't.

Director Davis McCallum has to stage all these elements at once. He's been learning how to do that since 2011, when the play premiered at Hartford Stage, and he's still learning from the Second Stage production.
Take a crucial scene in act two when one character steps outside her body while another has a revelation in a train station. The two moments happen miles apart, but they're thematically linked. "In my first attempt to do that, I tried to separate the various layers of reality in that moment," McCallum says. "But it became increasingly clear that it would be more exciting---and more in keeping with the free jazz aesthetic of Quiara's writing---to really mesh those things. To have them overlap and meld."

So now, the actors move past and around each other. Their characters are close together, even though they  can't see each other. "The first act has the events separated by a kind of firewall, and I feel like the audience has a reasonable expectation that sometime in act two, we're really going to have them all in the same space," says McCallum. "If not in the same literal space, then in the same scenic event."

That's not the only way space changes our understanding of the story. Odessa's online support group is an enormous part of the play, and when her online friends write to each other, we see them speaking their messages aloud. McCallum has to make these interactions interesting without staging them like realistic conversations.

That's why the online users always look at the audience when they're chatting. Even if they sit next to each other on a sofa, they never make eye contact.

"Sometimes, you'll have a conversation with someone in a car, when you're both looking at the road," McCallum explains. "You're not staring each other's eyes but there's a certain confessional intimacy that can creep up when you have something to look at other than the other person you're talking to. I thought that was analogous to the kind of intimacy that can happen in a chat room or over email."

Ironically, the chat room users tend to be more honest with each other than the family members who see each other in person. "Quiara would say, 'Even though it's on the internet, I feel like some of those scenes are the most 'living room' scenes I've ever written, just in terms of their emotional energy," McCallum recalls. "And I thought, 'Oh, that's a good thing to keep our eye on. Bringing these people together is important.'"

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Water by the Spoonful runs through February 10. It's the second part of a trilogy that also includes Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue and The Happiest Song Plays Last


Photo by Richard Termine