Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, is nominally a drama about broken family relationships and the struggles of recovering addicts. But Hudes chooses a nonlinear approach to her story, presenting a diffuse narrative in fragments, and challenges theatergoers to be patient while she connects the dots. The result is a frustrating viewing experience that appears to invite emotional and intellectual engagement without offering any but the most generous viewers a way in. The Unicorn Theatre production, directed by Mark Robbins, makes a respectable effort to shape the quick-cut play into a satisfying, coherent whole. A talented design team and a good cast deserve praise for each artist’s individual effort. But Hudes’ unnecessarily complicated structure poses so many technical challenges and storytelling roadblocks that this company’s best efforts simply aren’t enough. “Water by the Spoonful” is the middle work in a trilogy — neither the first play nor the third have been staged in Kansas City — and focuses on a Puerto Rican-American named Elliot Ortiz, a Marine veteran of the war in Iraq. Ortiz, played with charismatic skill by Keenan Ramos, works in a sandwich shop and maintains a close but fractious relationship with his sister Yazmin (Alisha Espinosa), a music educator. Early in the play Elliot’s aunt, who raised him as her own son, falls ill, triggering a family crisis. Elliot has a permanent limp, a constant reminder of his battle wounds, and he is periodically tormented by visits from an Iraqi ghost (Bryan Moses).
In a second story line that initially seems unrelated to Elliot and Yazmina, recovering crack addicts gather in an online chat room to trade jibes and bolster each others’ efforts to maintain sobriety. At first these characters are known to the audience only by their chat room nicknames. The sessions are moderated by Haikumom (Dawnnie Mercado). The virtual visitors include Orangutan (Erika Crane Ricketts), a young woman intent on traveling across the Pacific to find her birthplace in Japan; Chutes & Ladders (Walter Coppage), a middle-aged IRS employee who will never find a way to rebuild bridges with his family; and Fountainhead (Darren Kennedy), a representative of the white upper-middleclass who slowly learns compassion. At first these virtual relationships grow into face-to-face encounters with mixed results. Haikumom turns out to be Odessa, Elliot’s birth mom, who, after a relapse, must rely on Fountainhead as a caretaker. Orangutan and Chutes & Ladders, meanwhile, develop an implausible but poignant romance with an uncertain future.
The dramatic core is Elliot’s issues with Odessa about the death of his younger sister in childhood and their abandonment by their mother. The good news is that each of these characters finds a a measure of peace before all is said and done. The chat room sequences are problematic, despite the clarity provided by excellent projection designs by Douglas Macur and Jeff Cady and crisp lighting by Alex Perry. The actors face the audience and, except in one instance, are never seen typing their responses. At times the conversational, expositional exchanges don’t quite ring true as online dialogue. For most of its running time, the play dwells between the literal and the metaphorical without committing to either.
The actors are more than competent. Ramos dominates the production with his detailed and nuanced performance as Elliot. His exchanges with Mercado as Odessa are utterly engrossing. Mercado, for her part, delivers a complex, deeply felt performance. Coppage so thoroughly inhabits Chutes & Ladders that he never hits a false note. As Orangutan, Ricketts delivers a performance that gains weight as the show progresses. When Chutes & Ladders and Orangutan finally meet face to face, the emotional connection is tangible.
As Yaz, Espinosa is charismatic presence, although at times her performance feels too restrained. Kennedy, unfussy and effective, brings welcome clarity to Fountainhead.
The actors admirably cope with a script that does them few favors. That they find so much honest sentiment is a testament to their abilities.
“Water by the Spoonful” runs through May 18 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call For more information, call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.