Timely and tender

'Water by the Spoonful' wins you over

The current offering in TheatreWorks' new season is the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who previously won a Tony for the book of the musical, "In the Heights." In this newest work, Hudes follows a cluster of recovering crack cocaine addicts who only meet virtually, as well as a pair of cousins dealing with family death and denial. Both sweeping and specific, the play sprawls across neighborhoods, continents and individual stories to deliver a panoramic photo of life in our time. Graced with a terrific ensemble cast, TheatreWorks' excellent production will grab your heart and quietly stir your political thinking as well.

Elliot (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela) are close cousins, meeting to discuss Yaz's divorce and Elliot's unwell mother, and to wait for a professor Yazmin knows who can translate an Arabic sentence for Elliot. We gather that Elliot was in Iraq with the Marines, still suffers from a war injury, and works at Subway, while Yazmin teaches college classes and nurses her dream of a composing career. When the professor (George Psarras) provides a surprising translation, we begin to unravel a mystery that will ultimately encompass several lives and take us inside the human heart and mind.

Switch scenes, and we meet HaikuMom, aka Odessa, (Zilah Mendoza), moderator of an online chat room for crack addicts trying to support each other in recovery, counting minutes and hours of sobriety before they can add up days or weeks. Odessa is joined by chat room regulars Orangutan (Anna Ishida) and Chutes&Ladders (Anthony J. Haney), who occupy different "cells" of the multi-level set, speaking out to us as if they're writing on their computers. This theatrical device takes a bit of getting used to, but is brought off with generous humor and clever staging. When Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones) joins the chatroom, the ugly truths of addiction spill out, and all the members recount stories of falling to the depths of degradation.

The scenes alternate between these two groups until we eventually discover the connection between them, and the reason why learning about the insidious evil of crack is important to both. As the interlocking stories escalate in Act Two, characters reach emotional catharsis in their search for human connection, truth, and forgiveness. They begin to feel like our own family: familiar and flawed, perhaps arrogant, maybe tragic, but always touching. It's an ambitious landscape, and, as Hudes says, "It doesn't have neat edges;" the play is at times convoluted, and scenes often take a long time to develop. Yet Act Two generates more excitement than Act One, and ultimately there is a big payoff in the wide emotional character arcs, and even some sweet resolution.

Director Leslie Martinson has put together a superb ensemble; Villanueva and Varela shine as the two cousins lost in the present until they can resolve the past, both utterly believable and unashamedly young. Mendoza brilliantly gives us the recovered and the relapsed in a skillfully modulated Tony-worthy performance. Gifted comic Ishida and the marvelous Haney team up in the most delightful duo of the play, giving us memorable, unassuming humor and sentiment without pathos. Relative newcomers Psarras and Jones hold their own as more shadowy figures, each bringing authenticity to their respective conflicts.

Erik Flatmo's scenic design lends an epic feel to the stage, soaring high above the floor and including abstract elements and projections (by Erik Scanlon) by which the characters span the ether, climb mountains and chat online. Anna R. Oliver's costumes help reveal character traits, especially socio-economic status, and Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting serves up some perfectly rendered, beautiful moments.

Open yourself to the whirl of ideas and stories that Hudes spins separately at first, like a circus plate-twirler. Eventually, she will deliver them all into your heart for safekeeping, and you will mull over the memories as if they were your own.

What: "Water by the Spoonful," by Quiara Alegria Hudes, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View

When: Through Sept. 14, with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday - Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday.

Cost: Tickets range from $19 to $73; special discounts for under-30, educators, seniors.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960


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