There’s something uniquely compelling about a well-performed solo show, and Nilaja Sun is in the top rank of artists performing solo theater today. Sun’s 2006 piece No Child... was nationally lauded, and Sonja Parks won an Ivey Award for her performance in a 2009 Pillsbury House production of that work. Now Sun herself is at Pillsbury House on a national tour of her show Pike St.
Pillsbury House Theatre
The new play, which premiered Off Broadway in 2015, is named after a street in Sun’s native Lower East Side of Manhattan. The story is set on that street, following a Puerto Rican family through a long day’s journey into night as a hurricane builds outside their apartment.
With seamless fluidity, Sun becomes several different characters, including the silent 15-year-old girl around whom the family’s life revolves. Since suffering an aneurysm, Candi is almost entirely immobile and uncommunicative, requiring elaborate machinery to sustain her life. Candi’s single mother, Evelyn, has her hands full: caring for the girl, training to be an energy healer, and managing her own aging Papi.
Papi is a randy old coot whose affairs were much less amusing when he was younger, before Evelyn’s mother died of cancer. Evelyn has a brother, Manny, a military vet who’s been decorated for heroism in Afghanistan. When Manny comes home, he enjoys the adulation of his family and friends, but suffers from PTSD and struggles to keep his grasp on reality.
In Sun’s engrossing story, the family’s colorful life reveals darker shades as we see how their existence has been burdened by structural inequalities. It’s clear that they can’t take basic services for granted, as Evelyn nervously tests a generator that she hopes will keep her daughter alive in the event of a power failure. They’ve all experienced racism, and both Manny and Papi have been scarred by military service abroad.
In setting the play as a lead-up to a storm — rather than making it a story about the aftermath — Sun shifts the focus from most narratives about events like this. Instead of showing how individuals and government agencies respond, Pike St. explores the circumstances that make families like Evelyn’s particularly vulnerable to such disasters. They’re most in need of help, yet they get the least.
Sun is a busy actor and teacher who’s a familiar face from roles in TV shows including 30 Rock and Law & Order: SVU. She has a remarkable, justifiably confident presence onstage, and the show is as tight as a drum. Director Ron Russell also designed the soundscape that plays a major role in the show, especially in the moments when everything falls away and we find ourselves in Candi’s world — a realm of distant voices and, when the girl is able to gain partial control over her body, moments of fleeting transcendence.
Pillsbury House Theatre
3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-825-0459; through June 18