Pulitzer Prize Drama On Stage In South Bend

Seeing a theatrical production for the first time is always a risk. Will it be one to remember or easily forgotten?

The area’s first-time production of “Water By the Spoonful,” currently on stage in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warren Theatre, is most definitely the former.

The drama of tangled family relationships surrounded by the struggles of recovering addicts earned the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. It is the second play in her trilogy focusing on the Ortiz family.

In the spare, electronically-augmented setting in the black box theater, emotions ebb and flow as connections familial and conversational sever sharply and tentatively reconnect.

At the dramatic center are Yazmin Ortiz (Jennifer Fox), a music teacher; her cousin Elliot Ortiz (Matthew Whitney), a Marine veteran of Iraq, and his biological mother Odessa Ortiz (Megan Chandler), also known in her internet chat room for recovering addicts as Haikumom.

Elliot is haunted by the ghost of a civilian he may have killed by mistake (Andrew Woverton) and plagued by a still-painful wound which has left his dependent on pills.

Water By The Spoonful  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreMembers of the anonymous chat room are known as Chutes and Ladders (Tucker Curtis), a discontented IRS employee; Orangutan (Sophia Korson), a young girl searching for her Japanese birth parents; and Fountainhead (Wes Mills), the newest entry, a successful business man who cannot admit his addiction.

The death of Odessa’s sister, Ginny, who raised Elliot at the insistence of his drug-addicted mother, brings he and Yaz together to plan for the funeral or, at least, for the flowers. The discussion erupts in anger as Yaz seeks to include Odessa in the plans, a suggestion to which Elliot violently objects.

The vitriolic outpouring of her son’s hatred causes Odessa to relapse which, directly and indirectly, affects the fates of all and underscores her description of the never-ending process of recovery: “Staying clean is like tap dancing in a mine field.”

All the characters are dancing as fast as they can and the result, under the direction of Marion D. Deleon, is mesmerizing. Each brings the individual struggle to painful reality and, rising or falling, each has a grip on the emotions of the empathetic audience.

The music and sound created for this production by Emily Beck and Deleon are instrumental (no pun intended) in setting and sustaining the varying moods. The same is true of the excellent light/projection design by Matt Davidson.

I have one major objection to this well-acted production: With the exception of Mills and Wolverton, none of the actors are ethnically correct. The script calls for three Hispanic actors, one African American and one Asian. The program contains extended explanations from the SBCT Artistic Director and the director as to why these roles were played by actors who “may not visually match the ways that some may expect these ethnicities to appear.”

This is not to take away from the performances of the very talented cast but it did make me wonder what the play would be like if the proper “types” had been available.

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL” plays tonight through Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre. For reservations, call 234-1112.

Sibling Hopes And Dreams Collide In ECT Comedy

Take the modern comedy of award-winning playwright Christopher Durang, add liberal references from classical master Anton Chekov and the result is the 2013 Tony Award-winning play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

And don’t let the Chekov part fool you.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production delivers a solid serving off laughs, even for those who have never seen — or heard of — works by the Russian literary icon.

Set in Bucks County, PA., Durang looks at the relationships of three miss-matched siblings.

The sedentary life of Vanya (Mark Moriarty) and his sister Sonia (Amberly Hershberger Nichols) consists primarily of sitting on the screened porch of the family home, watching the lake and sharing repetitive hopes and complaints.

He is stoically accepting of his life but misses the past and is wary of the future.

She reminds him frequently that she is adopted and resents the fact that they took care of their parents, teachers and community theater buffs with a penchant for the plays of Chekov, until their deaths, while sister Masha (Annette Dilworth Kaczanowski), left home to pursue her theatrical career. She pays the mortgage and all the bills.

Vanya and Sonia ertc. Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INThe only interruption in their routine lives is provided by Cassandra (April Sellers), the cleaning lady who erupts in flashes of mostly unintelligible foresight which no one believes, much like her namesake in Greek tragedy.

Her latest prediction is “Beware of hootiepie,” which no one can interpret, not even Cassandra.

Enter the outrageously self-absorbed Masha, with boy toy Spike (Steven Cole), who has a penchant for stripping down at a moment’s notice. Masha is home to attend a costume party given by one of the wealthy neighbors. Her siblings were not invited.

Vanya and Sonia etc. Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INTo accessorize her Snow White outfit, she asks them to attend with her as Disney dwarfs. Vanya agrees but Sonia prefers to go as the Wicked Queen, with an adjunct interpretation that upsets Masha.

Even more upsetting to her is the arrival of Nina (Carly Swendsen), a young girl Spike meets at the lake. Obviously a Masha fan, she is recruited as another dwarf. All are leaving for the party when Masha drops a life-changing bombshell — she is planning to sell the house.

The resolution to this problem, as well as to several others, includes a “last-straw” rant by Vanya, who finally has had enough.

It is beautifully delivered and hits the mark again and again, probably most solidly with senior citizens but certainly recognizably with all ages. Considering the frequent lapses in theatrical etiquette from audiences today, it could not be more relevant. Moriarty well-deserved the frequent bursts of applause that marked his “sleeping tiger” diatribe.

Under the direction of John Hutchings, assisted by Demaree Dufour Noneman, each of the characters successfully delivers a solid interpretation.

Sellers is hilarious as the watchful Cassandra, Her unintelligible “warnings” are delivered with complete authority and eventually deciphered. Her gleeful “doll-handling” just about stops the show.

Kaczanowski goes right to the edge of the narcissistic Masha, but allows the fading star’s doubts and anxieties to simmer just enough below the surface to give her a really sympathetic layer.

Vanya and Sonia etc. Elkhart Civic Theatre Bfisgol INAs the gay peace-maker, Moriarty is beautifully caught in the middle between his sisters and his reaction to the deliberately flamboyant Spike is funny/sad and right on. As a closet playwright, his “script” is absolutely undecipherable but truly hilarious.

Sonia is the whiner of the group and Nichols delivers a pity-party that stops only when facing off with Masha. Her morning-after transformation goes believably from suspicious to tentatively joyous.

Cole gets many props for the real abandon with which he drops his drawers (down to his underwear), rightly embodying the simply shallow multi-tasker of this age. His jeans “re-entry” is fascinating.

As the most normal of the group, Swensden is genuinely affecting in her relationships with the off-center entourage and gives a fine interpretation off a molecule.

The entire action takes place in one of artistic director John Sboup’s “I could live there” set designs. Dawn Blessing & Co. do well with the costumes, especially a la Disney (love Dopey’s ears!).

I repeat that it is NOT necessary to be up on Chekov to enjoy Durang, although I do wonder — how many cherry trees make an orchard?

“VANYA and SONIA and MASHA and SPIKE” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 pm weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org