Theater, like music, enlightens, opens eyes and can connect partakers viscerally to seemingly disparate segments of the population: people who aren’t “them,” exotic “others” who live somewhere else, have different wants and needs and cuisines. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water by the Spoonful” schools us; you will meet people you will never forget, and you will be completely cognizant of the fact that not only are they like you, they are you. They are us. We are them.
This play is not a theatrical theme-and-variations. It is operatic in emotional and intellectual scope. Motifs run through the work. They splash into the experience and then run off, only to roll back in, reworked, refurbished and turned on their heads. This play is Wagner meets free jazz, John Coltrane’s wailing saxophone in the hands of Brunhilde, and we’re all in for the ride. We learn to accept the dissonances, the explosions that happen when ostensibly unrelated sounds crash together to make something new. Themes of neglect, addiction, cultural disconnection, the expenses of war; we see the power of it all to scar, to make wounds that can’t heal, that can only be cauterized, the branding eternal.
Edgar Miguel Sanchez’s Puerto Rican Iraq war vet Elliot stuns and purifies. His absent mother Odessa, a sometimes-fallen warrior, at once unafraid and terrified, is played by Charin Alvarez, vibrating with humility and humanity. Yadira Correa flashes in a part that seems tailored to her as Elliot’s cousin Yazmin. (Hudes, also a composer, began to build these characters based on members of her family. Yazmin, an adjunct music professor, might have been her personal door into the story.) Anish Jethmalani represents the Iraqi people, floating behind waving, scrim-like fabric, always pacing through Elliot’s mind, a sore that can’t scab. Representing the members of an online support group for recovering crack addicts are Daniel Cantor, Marissa Lichwick, and Dexter Zollicoffer. All provide great depth, and sometimes much appreciated comic relief.
We all love to be entertained. Empty your head, and go to the class that is “Water by the Spoonful.” Listening to Wagner and Coltrane is work, at least until we learn to let it wash us, and then drain away, leaving us forever changed. The rewards are tremendous. And if the lessons tear your heart wide open, and you fear you’re going to drown in your own tears, go see a Ken Ludwig farce the next night and call me in the morning. (Aaron Hunt)
At Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, (773)753-4472, courttheatre.org, $45-$65. Through April 6.