In June, investigators with the Department of Veterans Affairs identified 35 veterans who had died while waiting for treatment at a VA facility in Phoenix. We came to find out that this backlog problem was in fact nationwide, and that several medical facilities had fudged their books to make the wait times appear shorter than they actually were, or that the vets had already been to their appointments. Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, was forced to resign, the White House faulted the department’s management with “significant and chronic system failures,” and the nation was understandably outraged.
In the midst of this still-unraveling scandal — earlier this month, President Obama signed a law that will enable vets to return to their chosen private doctors — Players By the Sea is currently showcasing writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Water by the Spoonful, a play that cuts right to heart of what it means to be a veteran returning home from war. Directed by Pablo Gonzalez, the dialogue-heavy script weaves the story of an Iraq War vet trying to reclaim some sense of normalcy. The physically drained and injured main character, Elliot Ortiz — portrayed masterfully by local actor Kyle Geary — searches for meaning by way of an Arabic phrase repeated over and over — the last words said by a man Elliot then shot to death, waging war in that far-off land.
As if the images of war weren’t enough, Elliot is also battling the scars of his childhood. His adoptive mother died. His bio-mom, meanwhile, reigns supreme in her own online world of recovering drug addicts. “HaikuMom” — the screen name of Odessa, Eric’s birth mother, played by Olivia Gowan — was such a bad junkie in her day that she actually caused the death of Elliot’s little sister through dehydration, after giving her only water by the spoonful every five minutes (hence the play’s title). Taken together, Elliot’s night terrors and internal demons send him into a downward spiral — not unlike his mother’s pre-chat room lifestyle.
Geary says his character isn’t upset about just the war; rather, he went to war to avoid dealing with his hatred of Odessa. “All of his anger and the grudge he’s had bottled up for most of his life toward her … I had definitely felt personally,” he says. “And so, while it made it easier to have that anger, it always left a small bit of guilt in myself that I still hold on to things like that.”
Gowan says she found redeemable qualities even in her character: “The power of emotion in Odessa going from righteousness and wisdom to shame and guilt in a matter of minutes piqued my desire and interest. There were themes of forgiveness that were building indirectly and tangibly that I wanted to experience as an actor.”
Water’s plot is raw and intense, designed to force us to conceptualize what it’s like to come home to this kind of tragedy of experiencing firsthand the inherent violence of war, and then a domestic reality with few good choices.
The whole thing is uncomfortable, unsettling, distressing. But it serves mainly to make us think about the kind of care returning vets receive, and about the precious human relationships that help us forge ahead through the most difficult times.
Bradley Akers, who plays the character Fountainhead, an addict who is part of Odessa’s online group and comes to her assistance after the relapse, reflects on this theme throughout the play: “Water by the Spoonful is an extraordinary piece of theater. What it has done for me is make me aware of the importance of human connection, that in order to create human connection, we have to look past our material items or devices, and look inside ourselves.”