NEW YORK — Any conquest, however small, can't be fully assessed without considering the cost of achieving it, the failures that preceded it and the environment in which it occurred.
In Quiara Alegria Hudes' beautifully resounding drama "Water By the Spoonful," the playwright examines an array of emotional toils by splashing together droplets of life's bleak realities, harsh revelations, fragile successes and modest triumphs, all of which conspire like tiny specks of contrasting colors on a canvas.
Each drop of color by itself seems mundane. Together they gradually come into focus as a rich, brilliant montage of American urban life that is as dazzling to watch as it is difficult to look away from.
This inspired and abundantly human play, which was the surprise winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama, opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, making its New York premier after an initial run at Hartford Stage in 2011.
It is the latest shining example of Hudes' uniquely understated yet powerful voice, which came to prominence in her book of the Tony Award-winning musical "In The Heights."
In "Water By The Spoonful," she spins a loosely interwoven, dual narrative about a young Iraq war veteran's tumultuous family and an online support group of recovering drug addicts.
Early in the opening act, grieving cousins Yazmin (Zabryna Guevara) and Elliot (Armando Riesco) leaf through brochures for funeral flowers while reminiscing about the strange and wonderful days of their poverty-stricken childhood in their large, closely knit Puerto Rican family.
Astonished by the prices in the catalog, they worry openly about making ends meet, though stopping to recall the splendor of a garden once cultivated by their recently departed aunt – an adored matriarch in their extended family.
"It's odd to order flowers when someone dies," Yazmin laments. "The flowers are just going to die, too."
Despite that grim realization and their strapped budget, the cousins decide on the most expensive and exotic floral arrangement for their aunt, knowing they can't afford it but resolving to find a way, even if it leads to more hardship and worry.
It's one of many small but glorious acts of defiance that proliferate throughout this piece.
Despair is never far from Hudes' embattled characters, who all struggle in some way with addiction, regret, poverty or loss.
They're a weary and cynical bunch, but stubbornly spirited, somehow summoning the resilience to endure, and at times flourish, no matter the brutal truth of their circumstances or emotional cost. And that cost is often steep.
Under the direction of Davis McCallum, the talented cast, which also includes Liza Colon-Zayas, Frankie R. Faison and Sue Jean Kim, creates starkly real portraits of flawed but deeply conscientious people, all searching for an elusive path to some spiritual high ground.
This hazardous but relentless growth in a world of full of restrictions is reflected abstractly in Neil Patel's unusual but effective set – a drab, gray grid streaked with broad swaths of lush plant life that appear as if they sprouted through cracks in a cement sidewalk.
"Water By the Spoonful" is the second in a trilogy of plays. Its precursor – "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue" – was a Pulitzer finalist in 2007. The third play in the trilogy, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," is scheduled to make its world premiere in April 2013 in Chicago, leaving us left to wonder what's next for this uncommonly gifted playwright.