Characters and Themes in the Play 'Water by the Spoonful'

Pain, Recovery, and Forgiveness on Stage in a Compelling Drama

A glass of water and spoon

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Water by the Spoonful is a play written by Quiara Alegria Hudes. The second part of a trilogy, this drama depicts the everyday struggles of several people. Some are tied together by family, while others are tied through their addictions.

  • The first portion of Hudes's trilogy is titled Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue (2007).
  • Water by the Spoonful won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
  • The final part of the cycle, The Happiest Song Plays Last, premiered in the spring of 2013.

Quiara Alegria Hudes has been a rapidly rising star in the playwright community since the early 2000s. After achieving accolades and awards in regional theaters, she entered a more global spotlight with In the Heights, a Tony Award-winning musical for which she wrote the book.

The Basic Plot

At first, Water by the Spoonful seems to be set in two different worlds, with two different storylines.

The first setting is our "everyday" world of work and family. In that storyline, young Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz deals with a terminally ill parent, a nowhere job at a sandwich shop, and a burgeoning career in modeling. All of this is intensified by recurring memories (ghostly hallucinations) of a man he killed during the war.

The second storyline takes place online. Recovering drug addicts interact in an internet forum that has been created by Odessa, Elliot's birth mother (although the audience does not learn her identity for a few scenes).

In the chat room, Odessa goes by her username HaikuMom. Although she may have failed as a mother in real life, she becomes an inspiration to ex-crack-heads hoping for a new chance.

The online inhabitants include:

  • Orangutan: a junkie whose road to recovery has led her in search of her birth parents who live somewhere.
  • Chutes&Ladders: a recovering drug addict who maintains close online connections, but has yet to take them to the next level off-line.
  • Fountainhead: is the newest member to join the group, but his naiveté and arrogance at first repulse the online community.

Honest self-reflection is demanded before recovery can begin. Fountainhead, a once successful businessman who hides his addiction from his wife, has a hard time being honest with anyone—especially himself.

The Main Characters

The most invigorating aspect of Hudes's play is that although each a character is deeply flawed, the spirit of hope lurks within every tormented heart.

Spoiler Alert: Some of the script's surprises will be given away as we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each character.

Elliot Ortiz: Throughout the play, usually during quiet moments of reflection, a ghost for the Iraq War visits Elliot, echoing words in Arabic. It is implied that Elliot killed this person during the war and that the Arabic words may have been the last thing spoken before the man was shot.

At the beginning of the play, Elliot learns that the man he killed was simply asking for his passport, suggesting that Elliot may have killed an innocent man. In addition to this mental hardship, Elliot still grapples with the physical effects of his war wound, an injury that leaves him with a limp. His months of physical therapy and four different surgeries led to an addiction to painkillers.

On top of those hardships, Elliot also deals with the death of Ginny, his biological aunt and adoptive mother. When she dies, Elliot becomes bitter and frustrated. He wonders why Ginny, a selfless, nurturing parent died while Odessa Ortiz, his recklessly neglectful birth mother, remains alive. Elliot reveals his strength throughout the second half of the play as he comes to terms with loss and finds the capacity to forgive.

Odessa Ortiz: In the eyes of her fellow recovering addicts, Odessa (aka, HaikuMom) appears saintly. She encourages empathy and patience within others. She censors profanity, anger, and hateful comments from her online forum. And she doesn't turn away from pompous newcomers such as Fountainhead but instead welcomes all lost souls to her internet community.

She has been drug-free for over five years. When Elliot aggressively confronts her, demanding that she pay for the floral arrangement at the funeral, Odessa is at first perceived as a victim and Elliot as the callous, verbal abuser.

Meaning of the Title

However, when we learn of Odessa's back story, we learn how her addiction ravaged not only her life but the lives of her family. The play gets its title Water by the Spoonful from one of Elliot's earliest memories.

When he was a little boy, he and his younger sister were gravely ill. The doctor instructed Odessa to keep the children hydrated by giving them one spoonful of water every five minutes. At first, Odessa followed the instructions. But her devotion did not last for long.

Compelled to leave in search of her next drug fix, she abandoned her children, leaving them locked in their home until the authorities knocked down the door. By that time, Odessa's 2-year-old daughter had died of dehydration.

After being confronted with the memories of her past, Odessa tells Elliot to sell her only possession of value: her computer, her key to ongoing recovery. After she gives that up, she returns once again to drug abuse. She overdoses, verging on the brink of death. Yet even then, all is not lost.

She manages to hang onto life, Elliot realizes that despite her terrible life choices, he still cares for her, and Fountainhead (the addict who seemed beyond help) stays by Odessa's side, endeavoring to steer them into the waters of redemption.

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Bradford, Wade. "Characters and Themes in the Play 'Water by the Spoonful'." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, September 8). Characters and Themes in the Play 'Water by the Spoonful'. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Characters and Themes in the Play 'Water by the Spoonful'." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).