Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Pike St.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of The Odd Couple

Nilaja Sun
Photo by Teresa Castracane
Fate has not been kind to Evelyn, one of a half-dozen or so characters created by Nilaja Sun in her new solo piece, Pike St., now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Peet's Theatre. Her teenage daughter is bedridden, unable to speak or breathe on her own after an aneurysm, her father is a charming but unhelpful lothario with a drinking problem, and her brother is returning from military duty in the Middle East with not only a Silver Star and a hero's rep, but also a nasty case of PTSD. Despite these obstacles, Evelyn manages to maintain a sunny outlook, even as a hurricane (aptly named "Dolores," for it will bring great sadness) bears down on her Lower East Side fifth-floor walkup.

Evelyn is the mother, friend or neighbor everyone would want. Her maternal instincts extend not only to her daughter Condi, baby brother Manny, and her father, but also to Mrs. Appelbaum, her absent-minded Jewish grandmother neighbor. Through the course of 80 intermission-less minutes, Evelyn juggles everyone's needs, but mostly ignores her own. She lights candles (lots of candles: one character comments that "it's like Whitney Houston's funeral up in here.") to pray for others, and offers to pick up some D-batteries and bialys for Mrs. Appelbaum while she is vacating the apartment so her father can have some private time with his girlfriend, the pyrite-digging (there being little gold in this family) Medalia. The one moment Evelyn reserves for herself is spent in an online class she is taking to learn energy healing—and even that is about service to others, in part because of the subject of the class, and in part because she's taking it in order to generate a new income stream to support her family.

As a performer, Sun is fascinating to watch. Her face is so expressive, and so elastic, it almost seemed she was created by claymation. With a raise of her eyebrows, a tightening of her cheeks, and a downward jut of her chin that turns down the corners of her mouth, she becomes a 70-something Puerto Rican man. When she stands tall, arches her back and pulls back her shoulders, it's as though she is suddenly a six-foot plus soldier. Then, moments later, she shrinks back into a tiny, vulnerable girl with gnarled hands, rolling eyes, and other signs of palsy. Her body is truly an instrument—and one she plays with tremendous virtuosity.

But Sun is also the writer of Pike St., and it's here that she lets down her audience. Well, not so much lets us down, but doesn't take us far enough into the story. Her characters, though occasionally drifting dangerously close to the shores of cliché, are rich and lovingly drawn. There are stereotypes at play here—the Latin lover, the leering corner boy catcalling at women, the yiddische bubbe—but they are well earned. It's the story in which she places these characters that keeps Pike St. from earning my recommendation. In most instances, the expression "less is more" is one to live by, but in this case I think Sun rushes through the plot, leaping from one character to another, and never giving us enough time to appreciate the challenges they face before moving on. The threat of the approaching storm is established from the first moments, when Evelyn is on hold with Con Ed, the New York power company (which her father derides by saying "We New Yorkers are dumb motherfuckers to pay a company that starts with 'con'."), to determine their backup plans to ensure her daughter's ventilator can keep running. But Sun fails to build on that tension: she simply sets it up and then pays it off in a way that isn't true to its genesis.

Pike St. is a worthy effort—as an acting challenge, performance piece, and character study. But dramatically, it fails to deliver.

Pike St., through December 16, 2018, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is no show November 21 or 22, but an additional performance has been scheduled for Tuesday, November 27 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$90, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets and information are available online at, or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949.