— Elliot, the central figure of Quiara Alegría Hudes' deeply affecting "Water by the Spoonful," has returned from Iraq with battle scars both visible and invisible. He has wires in his leg that make walking painful, and the ping of his own cellphone is enough to startle him.
His story would normally be treated as a special interest report on the plight of returning vets. But Hudes, whose play won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, does something more radical: She sets Elliot's precarious reintegration into civilian society within the larger context of fractured contemporary America, a place where one needn't have firsthand experience of combat to know something about trauma and recovery.
"Water by the Spoonful" is finally getting its Southern California premiere, thanks to the Old Globe, which is presenting a top-notch production directed by Edward Torres. I am grateful that this vital America drama can be seen in our area, though I can't help feeling dismay at Center Theatre Group, which has been too busy programming solo shows and touring Broadway fare to find an opening at one of its theaters for a work that is as dramatically gripping as it is politically resonant.
Hudes, the author of the book for the Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights," writes about a concept that has sadly faded from national consciousness in recent years: community.
"Water," the middle play in a trilogy of stand-alone works, is set in 2009, largely in Philadelphia. The economy is obviously in a downward spiral, but instead of hearing about the collapse of the real estate market we are introduced to strapped individuals, some related by blood, others related by challenging circumstances.
Imagine that: A portrait of life in recessionary America in which the focus isn't on plunging stock prices but on people holding on for dear life.
Elliot (Rey Lucas), an aspiring actor who works at a Subway sandwich shop outside of his immediate neighborhood so as not to be seen by friends, has a strong bond with his cousin Yazmin (Sarah Nina Hayon), an adjunct professor of music. They share a deep love for their gravely ill aunt "Mami Ginny," who raised Elliot and has been an anchor not just for their Puerto Rican family but for the entire neighborhood.
Yaz is somewhat distracted by her impending divorce, but after Ginny dies, she's at Elliot's side to help make the funeral arrangements. Short of funds, they seek financial help from Elliot's birth mother, Odessa (Marilyn Torres), Ginny's sister, whom we've already encountered through her role as leader of an online support group for crack addicts. (Torres' fluid handling of these scenes, on Ralph Funicello's colorful set, makes these cyber moments vividly human.)
Elliot is haunted by his wartime experience. His physical pain, which has led to a substance abuse problem of his own, unleashes harrowing memories. A ghost (M. Keala Milles Jr.) routinely traipses across the stage in a turban repeating the same line in Arabic that Elliot has had translated by an academic colleague of Yaz's: "Can I please have my passport back?"
But it's the wounds from his early childhood that have filled Elliot with rage. The story of what happened in his home when his mother was in the grip of her addiction is inevitably flushed out. But "Water by the Spoonful" extends beyond one family's tragic past to take in a diverse urban cross-section of characters.
The members of the substance abuse recovery forum are identified by their online handles. Chutes&Ladders (Keith Randolph Smith) is an African American man in his 50s from San Diego who roughly calls out the others on their hypocrisy. Orangutan (Ruibo Qian) has traveled to Japan to search out her birth mother. Fountainhead (Robert Eli) is an affluent white computer programmer living on Philadelphia's Main Line who is new to the chat room and having difficulty accepting that he's not only out of work but a bona fide crack head. (All three actors create richly authentic portraits.)
Odessa, who goes by the name Haikumom, tries to keep the dialogue honest without turning belligerent, which isn't easy with this crew. Hudes presents this woman to us in her role as moderator before we learn about her failures as a mother. In this way, she makes it difficult for us to condemn and dismiss Odessa, invested as we are in her recovery.
Indeed the characters in "Water by the Spoonful" earn our empathy not because of their spotless goodness but because of their muddling imperfect humanity. This sentiment is magnified by the uniformly fine cast Torres has assembled. In both the writing and the acting, the relationships between characters grow.
Marilyn Torres (no relation to the director) infuses Odessa with raw emotion. This is someone who has had to fight for her survival, and her every throaty utterance testifies to the lifetime of combat she has experienced at home.
Hayon's Yaz, girl from the 'hood and scintillating academic, bridges two divergent cultures in the marrow of her being. Lucas' Elliot, as sweet as he is seething, brings a vulnerability that never effaces his vengeful temper.
Yaz's music specialty, the dissonant jazz of John Coltrane, provides Hudes with a structural key. As Coltrane "democratized the notes" and gave "ugliness" a dignified freedom, as Yaz explains in a lecture, so Hudes corrals harsh voices and brutal stories into a magnificent whole that is beautiful not because it is lovely but because it is brokenheartedly tender and true.
'Water by the Spoonful'
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends May 11.
Tickets: Start at $29
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or http://www.the oldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes