Woolly Mammoth brings a slice of Manhattan to Washington, D.C.
Currently being staged in a stunning regional premiere by Woolly Mammoth, playwright-actor Nilaja Sun's solo show Pike St. tells the harrowing story of a thirtysomething mother, Evelyn Vega, who lives on Manhattan's Lower East Side in a fifth-floor walk up with her 15-year-old daughter who cannot breathe on her own. Evelyn must struggle to make sure her daughter's respirator and dialysis machines keep working in spite of the fact that a hurricane threatens to cut the electricity off.
The production begins as audience members file in to take their seats. Sun is already onstage seated on a chair, preparing for her performance. Eventually, she contorts her legs, intertwines her arms, closes her eyes, and purses her lips awkwardly, becoming Evelyn's daughter, Candi Lola Vega. After a brief pause, Sun rises from the chair and begins to reveal details of Evelyn's life: She used to be a conductor on the subway until Candi's accident; now she is studying to be an "energy healer" in an effort to help her daughter.
Evelyn does everything she can to prepare for the hurricane, and as she does so, various characters pass into and out of her apartment. Each of them is etched in abundant detail. Using only a recognizable voice or the position of her chin, arms, or legs, Sun can instantly suggest the presence of a male or a female of one generation or another. These suggestions are made with lightning-fast speed, and there is never any question as to which character Sun intends to outline.
There's absentminded Mrs. Applebaum, who can't seem to remember that Martin Luther King is dead or that she helped to deliver Evelyn when she was born. In drawing her, Sun creates a perfect Yiddish accent and seems to lose about six inches in height. There's also Evelyn's father, Poppi, who enjoys drinking alcohol morning, noon, and night. Poppi has a girlfriend, Migdalia, and he forces Evelyn to put up with her visits and her outrageous demands for money.
One of the characters portrayed with the most depth in Pike St. is Evelyn's brother, Manny, who returns from Afghanistan the day the play takes place. Manny is a decorated war veteran who received a Silver Star for saving himself and two of his buddies after their Humvee was blown up. In one of the most telling scenes, Sun shows how Manny has not forgotten the past. Visiting with a friend, Manny thinks he is still in a war zone when the "B" train roars past him, triggering frightening memories.
The real Pike St. in New York City, located underneath the Manhattan Bridge between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, is one of the places that would likely be destroyed if there were a super-hurricane like the one portrayed in the play. Sun's choice of location adds a particular edge and anxiety to the production.
Sun and director Ron Russell deliver a production that is fast and furious. There are no lulls in the action and very few moments where Sun appears to even take a breath. Russell is also the sound designer and has created some terrifyingly jolting moments of thunder and a subway train roaring by. Russell's sound scape is accompanied by extremely effective lighting moments by Tyler Micoleau.
Meghan Raham's set includes the chair that Sun sits in at the beginning of the show, placed on a rectangular wood platform that represents the Vega household. Clint Ramos gives Sun a costume that serves the many people she plays: red jeans, a blue short-sleeved shirt, and white gym shoes.
There are many truly astonishing elements to the production including the breathtaking speed with which Sun packs a huge story into 85 minutes, the many and precisely delineated characters she invents, and her ability to show so much empathy for the people around her — even those who drive her crazy with their outlandish personalities. Pike St. is thrillingly full of color, energy, and throbbing with details of Puerto Rican immigrant life as it is found in New York City. That storytelling, combined with Sun's knock-out performance, make Pike St. an exciting and vibrant theatrical experience.