Too Much Harmony: “Water by the Spoonful,” A Play About Friendship, Dissonance, and Humiliating Identity

Too Much Harmony: “Water by the Spoonful,” A Play About Friendship, Dissonance, and Humiliating Identity March 19, 2014

Last night I saw Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Pulitzer-winning Water by the Spoonful at Studio Theatre. It uses dissonant jazz as a metaphor for the disjunctions and collisions in our own lives, asking whether these discordant notes will ever resolve into harmony. The show tells two parallel stories: A young vet with PTSD fights with his cousin about how to mourn his dying adoptive mother, and members of an online support group for “crackheads” (their term, which is important, see below) strive to forge a few IRL friendships. At the end of Act One we finally learn how the two storylines weave together.

This is the first moment of harmony, but harmony in fact comes to dominate the play in a way I found almost oppressive. All the characters end up with roughly the same views of obligation, including a view of friendship which is basically codependence. I’d be totally okay with that and intrigued by it if the play seemed to know what it was defending! I’d love to be challenged by a play which portrayed codependence as genuine love, a la Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.

But all the characters come to a consensus, as if picking another human being and demanding that that person be your personal savior is an uncontroversial action, and it really feels like they’d all just randomly started praising Jesus. Only more so, because Christianity includes enough contradiction and paradox that it has more space for dissent and dissonance than any purely private revelation on the nature of love.

The strongest feature of Water is its portrayal of love’s obligations. These obligations are physical–physical caretaking is a major theme of the play and its imagery–and they are impossible. We simply aren’t capable of loving as we should; none of us do it. That’s true and raw.

The weakest features are the characters we’ve seen before (seriously though, I’ve seen a lot of Iraq vets with PTSD in theaters this last decade and this play does not add anything necessary to that canon–although this play is the middle part of a trilogy, and I admit the character’s journey might feel more unique if I’d seen the first third of it) and that insistent harmonizing of worldview. The play tends to assume that we agree with it on love’s obligations, so we’ll be on a character’s side as, for example, she tries to berate the vet into forgiving his biological mother. I’ve watched a lot of my friends work painfully hard to forgive neglectful, damaging, or self-centered parents, and it’s a lifelong and brutal process which you just can’t scold or yell someone into doing well.

And then there’s the element which made the play genuinely hard for me to watch, just on an emotional level: Over and over again, people yell at each other in an effort to humiliate others for their addictions. The online “support” group can be harshly confrontational (I heard a couple discussing this behind me at the intermission, as the man wryly assured the startled woman that yes, this is really how addiction treatment or support looks in a lot of places) and it’s really insistent that people describe themselves as crack addicts or crackheads.

What struck me about that was that even the crackheads in long-term recovery didn’t seem to have any sense of humor or relief about accepting this identity. They seemed to view it as purely humiliating. I was reminded pretty strongly of how I used to think: I remember writing something in my journal, I can’t remember if I was still drinking or newly-sober, about Christopher Bowman’s “Inside Edition” appearance. I was wondering what it must feel like to go from having your addiction be a secret–even an open secret–something you lied and BS’d to hide, to having it be a fairly big part of your public persona. “I hope I never find out what that feels like,” I wrote.

But the thing is, by the time I finally did start writing about my own alcoholism, it was such a huge relief! I was really sick of the public mask and the pressure it brings. There’s huge relief in admitting this big humiliating fact about yourself and just saying, Take me as I am. There’s so much less queasy smiling and you-wouldn’t-like-me-if-you-knew. And from that feeling of release, I think a lot of the humor of recovery is born.

Obviously all of that works differently when your online persona is strictly pseudonymous and cordoned off from the rest of your life. But it was still noticeable to me that nobody in this group seemed to view the whole “crackhead” identity as a source of anything but shame.

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