Catalina Maynard and Christian Haines in "Water by the Spoonful." Karli Cadel Photography
In Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” dissonance is expressed as a backdrop through the “free jazz” of John Coltrane. Onstage, it palpitates in the head of Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz, who is plagued by PTSD from wars foreign and, you could say, domestic.
The Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is the second play in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy.” (The others are “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” and “The Happiest Song Plays Last.) It's a simmering tale of battling demons and struggling for connections.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of “Water by the Spoonful” directed by Meg DeBoard comes eight years after the Old Globe last staged it locally. While the story’s online chat room device feels dated, the repercussions of war, as we know all too well, are not.
Hudes, who also wrote the book for “In the Heights,” is adept at creating characters about whom we quickly care. In “Water” besides the tormented Elliot, there are his supportive cousin Yaz and the inhabitants of a crack addiction recovery chat room: “Orangutan,” “Chutes & Ladders,” “Fountainhead” and the facilitator, “HaikuMom.” It’s the latter, a woman named Odessa, who is the bridge between the chat room dramas and Elliot’s plight.
At times, as when Elliot is stalked by his ghosts (one in particular) or fighting to process his pain, the intensity of “Water By the Spoonful” is off the charts. The chat room scenes begin as cathartic escapes but when the play’s conflicts converge it’s sit-forward time in the theater.
Cygnet’s cast, right down the line, is up to the task, starting with Steven Lone’s steely, haunted Elliot. Melissa Ortiz, making her Cygnet debut, is genuine and affecting as Yaz.
It’s great to see Catalina Maynard, who’s delivered so many stellar performances at the San Diego Rep and at the bygone ion theatre to name two, at Cygnet. Her portrayal of Odessa, Elliot’s birth mother, is wrenching.
Credit to the chat-room denizens as well: Emily Song Tyler (“Orangutan”), Bryan Barbarin (“Chutes & Ladders”) and Christian Haines (“Fountainhead”). “Water by the Spoonful” is much more than about trying to overcome a terrible addiction. But that’s a critical part of it, and through these three we’re reminded that there is no prototypical addict’s story, no one way out of the darkness.
With its production earlier this year of “Life Sucks” and now “Water by the Spoonful,” Cygnet already has much to be proud of.
"Water by the Spoonful" runs through April 24.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.