Stories of struggle give the honest truth

Johanna Pugh

“Water By the Spoonful” is the second fall theater production this semester, directed by theater and film professor Roberto Pomo. It tells the interconnected stories of six characters while exploring topics of drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and both the benefits and struggles of having online friendships.

The story is centered around Elliot Oritz (Antonio Perez de la Cruz), a 24-year-old Iraq Marines veteran living in Philadelphia in 2009. Elliot is plagued by visions of a ghost (Jacob Garcia) and issues stemming from his birth mother (Yesenia Lopez) and her sister, who is his adoptive mother. By his side is his support system, his 31-year-old cousin Yazmin Ortiz (Jezabel Olivares) who is an adjunct music professor in the middle of a divorce who questions her own place in the world.

The play was written to be staged in a unique way; four of the central characters– known by their online usernames: Haikumom (Lopez), Chutes & Ladders (Juan Chavez Jr.), Orangutan (Jordan Powell) and Fountainhead (Thomas Dean)– are involved in an internet chat room support group for recovering crack cocaine addicts.

This requires the actors to be beside one another but speak in and face different directions as if they are truly in separate parts of the world. This resulted in a unique experience for the actors as well as the audience.

“Because we are near each other, supposed to be separate and physically we are aimed in different directions, it’s something of a challenge,” said Dean, 26, a theater major. “You just have to imagine — kind of like yelling at your TV if you’re watching a sports event — that you’re trying to get that message to them even if you know it’s extremely far away. You still have to put it out there for everyone to hear.”

The cast and crew discussed how the carefully crafted dialogue by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, who was influenced by her family and experiences growing up, ties all these stories and issues together in a refreshingly earnest way.

“The script is very honest. It doesn’t pull any punches, they don’t try to persuade you either way about addicts. It’s not trying to color your perception about addicts like in a biased way,” said Chavez, 21, a theater major. “It’s not giving you the usual [expletive] like that they’re all tweaking in an alley or something like that — they’re just people with problems. It’s just, ‘Here’s what happens,’ and you decide, and that’s what I like about it.”

The cast discussed how this honesty is also present in the characters and where they come from — which varies from Philadelphia, San Diego, Japan and Puerto Rico.

“It’s real, there’s like a gritty sense to it. Like these characters aren’t well-polished in the sense that they’re high end. They’re just real people from South Philadelphia, like the part of town where you need to be tough and street smart,” said Perez de la Cruz, 22, a theater major. “You can really see that in the characters in the way they act, and like I said they’re all really complex characters that have different faces to them. I like the way [Hudes] intertwines their stories together.”

In regards to the play’s portrayal of addicts, the diverse cast of characters shows how these issues can affect anyone, regardless of background.

“It’s nice to see not only the Asian community being portrayed but it’s also kind of breaking down the ‘Model Minority’ myth that Asians face every day,” said Powell, a 22-year-old theater major who plays Orangutan, a Japanese character. “She is a crack addict, and that’s not normally talked about in Asian communities.”

Pomo had the cast research drug addiction, and invited members working with Narcotics Anonymous and nursing professor Christine Vourakis– a nationally recognized expert on mental health and addictions– to speak with the students. These resources were provided to help the actors portray their characters as realistically as possible.

“The very next day the actors came back and things had just changed dramatically because they took in what was being given to them and they incorporated it into what they were doing,” said Antony Lotenero, 22, assistant director and stage manager for the production. “We’ve got some phenomenal actors doing really good material.”

Cast members said working on a show with a small cast and intense material fostered a positive communal vibe between the group.

“The cast and the crew have been very warm and they’ve welcomed everybody with open arms,” Dean said. “They try to have a lot of fun both in the process of rehearsal and outside of it. I just feel like I’m surrounded by friends who are very dedicated to the same work I’m passionate about.”

Pomo supplemented the material with video clip projections that show where the characters are, when they are online as well as add in clips demonstrating Elliot’s PTSD flashbacks and metaphors for the drama onstage.

The online element to the show provides an uncommon look at and commentary for how people find interpersonal connections with others online.

“The online support group, for my character especially, really saved his life. He was just a mess before he found them,” Chavez said. “But even with that, you find that with all this online interaction everyday, they still crave actually seeing somebody. It’s not a substitute for actually being with somebody and talking face-to-face.”

The cast and crew hope the audience walks away from this show appreciating not only the humanizing look at addicts, but what the show has to say about family.

“People can overcome anything when they stick together and when there’s family involved — and not just blood family but family you create,” Olivares said. “Whether it be people that you meet that touch you in a certain way and you just bond and they just become family and they help you through anything. I thought the play does a good job of showing that, so I hope the audience sees and enjoys that.”

The remaining showtimes include Nov. 19 and 20 at discounted prices at 6:30 p.m., and Nov. 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. in the Playwrights’ Theatre in Shasta Hall. The show will conclude its run on Nov. 23 with a 2 p.m. showing.