Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Pike Street
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Boy and Robin Hood and Up: The Man in the Flying Chair


Nilaja Sun
Photo by George Byron Griffiths
Anyone who has been close to the bridges that span the East River between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn—the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge—has seen how high the bridge decks rise above the street level, elevated enough for five-story buildings to easily sit below the traffic—cars, trucks, and trains—beneath them, forming entire urban villages under the canopy of the bridge. Pike Street stretches a single block in the heart of one such "village", under the Manhattan Bridge. This is where the Vega family reside in Nilaja Sun's mesmerizing one-woman play, Pike Street. Sun is performing the work herself at Pillsbury House Theatre, through June 18. This is a play and a performance you will never forget.

The Lower East Side—or LES, or Loisaida—is where Sun grew up, and where she now makes her home as an award-winning playwright (No Child) and actor. The turf is in her bones. The story she created as a writer and recreates at each performance (as actor) brings us into a corner of her world through very specific people, with their own flaws and grace notes. At the same time, it speaks to universal themes such as the power of family ties, the endurance of hope against all odds, and the fragility of life.

Pike Street takes place in October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy was about to unleash its fury on the northeast United States. Pike Street, just one block from the East River, is easy prey to rising flood waters. The first member of the Vega family we meet is Candi. As the audience enters the house, she is sitting in silence on a white metal chair, for a long time very still, then slowly twisting her limbs together, contorting her mouth, and casting her eyes into deep space, as the drone of the radio repeating storm warnings and safety information repeats in an endless loop. Only later in the play do we learn that Candi is the 15-year-old daughter of Evelyn Vega, and that four years earlier she suffered irreparable damage from a brain aneurysm. As the house lights go down and the play begins, we meet Candi's grandmother, who welcomes us as with an adorable smile while she exorcises bad spirits from the room. Actually, Mama is dead. She was a spiritual healer and operated a neighborhood botanica, but was unable to fight off cancer. She remains very much a presence in the Vega home.

Finally, Evelyn emerges as the play's central character. She is on the phone frantically trying to make plans to keep Candi's life-sustaining equipment going in the event of a power outage. We then meet her father, Poppy, a rum-drinking, numbers-playing womanizer who dismissed the approaching storm as hype. Poppy and Evelyn eagerly await the arrival of Manny, Evelyn's brother, on leave from duty in Afghanistan, having become a front-page hero for saving the lives of two comrades in arms along with his own. Since the botanica closed and Evelyn quit her job as a subway conductor to care for Candi and take classes online to become an "energy healer," Manny's remittances home have become the sole income for the Vegas.

We also meet the nuclear family's community connections, including Gloria Applebaum, a half-lucid nonagenarian neighbor. She won't fret about a hurricane—after all, "I lived through the depression!" she exclaims. There is Migdalia, Poppy's most recent female "friend", whose special friendship cost Poppy $50.00—this visit. As soon as Manny arrives home, his buddy Tariq shows up: a fast talking, slow thinking man-child who pushes weed and liquor on Manny and begs to hear about the hot, naked Taliban chicks Manny had in the war. We briefly meet the Yemeni proprietor of a corner store who unwittingly provokes Manny's anguished memories of bomb-throwing jihadists, and a neighborhood kid in thrall of Manny, the war hero he saw on TV.

As the hurricane approaches, the lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and sound design by Ron Russell (who also directs the production) create a visceral sense of its growing power. Sounds are everywhere—the creak of the window opening and closing, water splashing into a chair is framed on either side by low black shelves on which rows of white candles are placed, light to fight of the darkness of the storm and also the darkness of disease and disability.

Russell directed Pike Street from its first production, and also worked with Sun as her sound designer for No Child. It is hard to know where director leaves off and actor takes over; the result is sublime. Sun transforms instantly among the ten characters, changing voice, face and stance without a hairbreadth from one to the next, even in heated interaction. She projects each character's unique persona which allows them to cope, however precariously, with their constrained world.

Evelyn, Poppy and Manny confront one another for the inevitable ways in which family members disappoint, but there is never a doubt that they are linked by unbreakable bonds of love, bonds that extend still to the spirit of Mama and, for Evelyn, to her precious Candi. But what does nature care about the bonds of love? The forces of driving wind and rising water doesn't make distinctions. Aware of the toll that Hurricane Sandy took, we know that this family stands in harm's way and nervously await a grim outcome. The indifferent drone of the news reporting seems obscene when applied to these deeply alive people, made so real to us.

Pike Street is a complete play in its own right, and deserves to be performed widely, by other actors, but it is inconceivable than any actor could know these characters so well and portray them with such love and honesty as Nilaja Sun is doing. Do not miss this amazing performance of a deeply moving play. In equal measure it is uplifting in its depiction of roots, love and hope, and it is heartbreaking in its clarity about how fragile we all are.

Pike Street continues through June 18, 2017, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

Writer: Nilaja Sun; Director and Sound Design: Ron Russell; Set Design: Based on the Original Design by Meghan Raham; Costume Design: Clint Ramos; Light Design: Tyler Micoleau; Light Director: Michael Wangen; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noël Raymond

Cast: Nilaja Sun


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