Theatre Review: One-Woman ‘Pike St.’

008_PikeSt-(ZF-8995-27224-1-155)Nilaja Sun sits in the chair, absorbed in herself as the audience at Woolly Mammoth takes its seats for her electrifying one-woman “Pike St.”

Sun may be familiar from her many roles on TV from Juliet on “Madam Secretary” to Irene on “30 Rock” and roles in shows from “Nurse Jackie” to “Louie.” Or from her first Obie award winning one-woman play, “No Child…” more than a decade ago.

But in “Pike St.,” she becomes not only the special needs teen in the chair, contorting herself, but the whole neighborhood around her — her protective mother, her outspoken grandfather, her military uncle, the Jewish woman down the stairs, the bodega clerk.

As a major storm bears down on the Lower East Side tenement, a whole distinct neighborhood Puerto Rican emerges, with each individuality rubbing against the other. As Whitman declared “I contain multitudes,” so does Sun in a work that is urgent and full of life and speaks to urban struggles and the storms constantly brewing outside to upend everything at a moment’s notice.

There are practical things to arrange as Evelyn, who quit her job to care for her daughter (and is studying energy healing) deals with Con Ed, who leaves her hanging on the line — about whether a power failure is coming that would stop the necessary dialysis machine and breathing apparatus. Should they get a generator?

As family and neighbors — all given life by Sun’s remarkable talents — enter and leave, a growing family crisis builds even as pieces in the story of the family grows.

This would be compelling enough with a full cast, but is dazzling with Sun fully embodying each one in the well-wrought drama she has constructed. Amid the problems, there is humor in the family — mostly thanks to the blunt Papi — and a love that binds them, whatever their human failings.

Sun brings the audience into the world effectively first by being there before the audience sits and piquing their curiosity, and then when the play starts (and the houselights still up, and the commotion in the lobby audible from opened doors) she engages everyone into a breathing exercise (something Evelyn picked up from energy healing class?), gathers up the clouds of negativity and shoves them right out the door.

As he did for the 2015 off-Broadway premiere, Ron Russel is director and sound designer for the work. Meghan Raham’s set revolves around the chair in which Candi sits and is flanked by shelves of candles that represent the everlasting flickers of hope and faith that keeps the household and the often forgotten neighborhood going. Part of that depends on Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design, which reverberates with the muted flashes of the coming lightning.

But it is Sun’s virtuosity performance that is the draw here and you wouldn’t want to deny yourself the opportunity to see her own force of nature in action.

 

“Pike St.” continues through April 23 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company,  Washington, DC. 

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