Nilaja Sun accomplishes an amazing feat of acting with her voice, body and expression in the one-person show, Pike St., directed by Ron Russell.
I only wish it had been longer than its intermission-free 80 minutes, so there had been more of her skill to admire and more time for her to develop the myriad characters she has invented, all of whom live on, or near, Pike Street, in the Lower East Side of New York City.
When the play begins, we learn that a Sandy-strength hurricane is quickly approaching New York. The main character, Evelyn, has to leave her subway conductor job to care for Candi, her disabled daughter. Candi had suddenly developed what is thought to be a brain aneurysm. All of Evelyn’s time, energy and resilient good humor is focused on Candi, who relies on a respirator and a dialysis machine to live. So, as the play begins, the approaching storm is on Evelyn’s mind as she telephones Con Edison to see whether her building will lose power. Evelyn will use her home generator if the power fails.
Evelyn’s brother, Manny, a decorated soldier, is coming home from the Army. Evelyn and Manny’s deceased mother owned a small neighborhood botanica, but the family had to close the store when the mother died. Manny and Evelyn’s father is a womanizer, gambler and generally a negative influence on the family. Some of the money Manny sent home from the Army has gone to buy gifts for the father’s wisecracking girlfriend, Migdalia.
Almost unbelievably, all these personalities are acted by Nilaja Sun, not to mention a senile Jewish neighbor, a local drug dealer and a Yemeni store owner. Sun wafts in and out of the character in the blink of an eye, without any props or changes of clothes. She uses only her voice and demeanor to signal the transformations. She is masterful as Candi, with her body contorted into an unnatural pose and her eyes unfocused. It was only when Manny conversed with the local dealer that I briefly became confused between the characters.
Because of the style and brevity of the performance, there isn’t much emphasis on establishing any change or growth in Evelyn and her family. What we watch is one day in their lives. The play has an abrupt, cataclysmic ending, which seemed out of keeping with the tenor of the rest of the production. But it is unforgettable.
Sun last appeared at Berkeley Rep in 2008, when she performed her Obie award-winning hit solo show, No Child…, about her experience teaching in the New York City public school system. Pike Street relies on her Lower East Side background to bring realism to her authentic creations. Sun is an original talent with marvelous gifts.
The West Coast premiere of Pike St. is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through Dec. 16. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.