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Addictions create dysfunction in 'Water by the Spoonful'

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"Water by the Spoonful" at The Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City

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The Unicorn Theatre continues its celebration of 40 consecutive years with the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, “Water by the Spoonful,” written by Quiara Alegria Hudes and directed by Mark Robbins, that opened Saturday night, April 26.

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Last week, The Unicorn successfully completed a capital campaign one month ahead of schedule to purchase their building and secure a permanent home, and this week open a Pulitzer Prize winning drama, a spokesman said.

“Water by the Spoonful’ turns out to be a thoughtful, inventive, occasionally funny, at times moving story about addiction — about forgetting the unforgettable and forgiving the unforgivable in order to move on. It also explores the new ways we relate to one another – meaning, online – and the search for connection,” according to New York Theater.

Connection, addiction, and redemption, parts of the theme of “Water by the Spoonful” depicts a young Iraqi war veteran who comes home to reconnect with his family, only to find his mother running a chat room for recovering addicts. This multimedia journey stretches from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico exploring human connection in the digital age. Birth families splinter and online families collide as they all search for a safe haven in a messed up world.

The story focuses on a recovering addict who moderates a chat room for other users. The room allows former users to chat together and support each other for one more day. They also understand the idea that at any time addiction may draw them back. Day one looms as a reminder that each individual starts the journey away from addiction at the same place.

The play beautifully shows how the social media fosters and nurtures people from different places, circumstances and backgrounds to develop bonds that could sometimes lead to lasting or deeper relationships. By chatting daily, Haikumom, Orangutan, and Chutes and Ladders show their souls as they learn to speak the truth to each other as they continue their path away from addiction.

A new individual enters the chat room society, Fountainhead, looking for support as he tries, unsuccessfully, to end his daily drug use. He finds an understanding moderator, a “smart ass” who ran away to Japan to escape her life–Orangutan, and an angry IRS agent who can’t redeem himself with his family–Chutes & Ladders.

The chat room story continues to develop as the audience learns the back story of the individuals trying so hard to re-connect to a normal world from their inner loneliness. However, “Water by the Spoonful” develops a second story line of the chat room monitor and her dysfunctional family. The play reveals her past addiction and the inability to raise her son, now an aspiring actor and injured soldier.

Lonely and broken individuals try to regain their footing and climb back from the abyss only to find each day a struggle. Every character deals with heartbreak, disillusionment, and despair, yet they all cling to hope for a better day and end to their suffering.

Not enough positive comments can be penned to explain the mastery and concept of the play by director Mark Robbins and his creative team. The minimalized set contains hidden rotating doors that allow the actors and stage crews limitless access to the stage when to the audience there seems to be no exits for the actors. The set design was spectacular.

As for the acting in “Water by the Spoonful,” Robbins could not have assembled a finer cast of professionals for this production.

A relative newcomer, Alisha Espinosa gave a solid performance as a niece of Haikumom and daughter of Haikumom’s sister. She’s very strong as a college teacher looking for her own happiness and strength while helping others forgive and move forward.

Dawnnie Mercado, as Odessa/ Haikumom, controls the dynamics of the story. She is the hinge between the two story lines. She’s the recovering addict who lost her family to drugs and the caring monitor assisting others who need daily support to avoid another “Day 1.” Mercado is funny, touching, sad, helpless, burdened, and supportive in a part that allows her to show all facets of a real person’s daily life after addiction.

As the angry young man, Keenan Ramos as Elliot Ortiz displays the hurt suffered from a mother whose crack habit destroyed his family and led to his sister’s death. His story is one of needing to find peace within to move forward and find a way to forgive his mother for her past. He gives a poignant performance as Elliot.

Darren Kennedy also serves as an intersection point of the two story lines. He comes to the chat room in denial of his addiction and suffers the slings and arrows of the other chatters, but also learns to connect and form a pivotal relationship with Haikumom. He learns to give up his pretension and find reality. Kennedy’s stage time is short, but his performance shows his strong stage presence and his ability to create the needed emotions for his character.

Chutes & Ladders gives Walter Coppage an opportunity to create a different character that reaches out from his present to take a giant step toward new beginnings. His character is the character of hope. He grows from an angry chatter to be the harbinger of hope. Coppage’s character actually steps from his comfort zone to move to new vistas. His character gives up the pain of his past and family to find a new beginning and strengthen a connection. It’s a strong yet subtle performance.

The sarcastic and acerbic character of Orangutan provided Erika Crane Ricketts the chance to play a Japanese character. Ricketts who is half Japanese said she relished the chance to play a Japanese character. She also said the part was difficult as a chat room personality to just face the audience to deliver the lines and not interact with other actors. She performed flawlessly and impassioned. The tears sliding down her cheek at one point displayed the depth of her emotions as her character faced unforseen difficulty.

A ghost and as Professor Amand, Bryan Moses had the least stage time and fewest lines. Still, his stage presence and delivery were important to set the tone of the story and help give visual guides for the audience.

The lighting was truly unique with the simulation of lines of communication for the chat room lighting up the back wall of the set and displaying who was logged in and how exited the chat room. Sound was good as well as everything was clear and precise for the different effects needed. The props were used in several ways so that each piece seemed to have several usages. Costumes were appropriate to indicate modern time.

Quiara Alegría Hudes also won the Tony Award for Best Book for the Musical, “In the Heights.”

“Water by the Spoonful” plays on the Jerome Stage and features: Keenan Ramos as Elliot Ortiz, Alisha Espinosa as Yazmin Ortiz, Dawnnie Mercado as Odessa/ Haikumom, Darren Kennedy as Fountainhead, Walter Coppage as Chutes & Ladders, Erika Crane Ricketts as Orangutan and Bryan Moses as Professor Amand/ A Ghost.

The creative team led by Robbins includes: Tanya Brown, Gary Mosby, Alex Perry, Elizabeth Green, David Kiehl, Ian R. Crawford, Emily Swenson, Douglas Macur, Jeff Cady, Amanda Boyle, Lexie Klasing.

The show runs April 23rd – May 18, 2014. Previews were April 23, 24, and 25. Opening Night was April 26. Performances run Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Talk back performances, where patrons are encouraged to stay after the show and discuss the play with the actors and director, are scheduled for April 29, May 4 and May 11.

The Unicorn is located at 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111. Tickets are now on sale. Call 816-531-PLAY (7529) EXT. 10, online at UnicornTheatre.org or buy in person at the box office. Special discounts are available for seniors (65+), students and patrons under age 30.

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