By Karen Isaacs
Nilaja Sun first came to my attention with her solo piece No Child… that received numerous awards. It was based on her experiences as a teaching theater artist in the NY public school system. The title referred to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative.
It was touching and enlightening as she showed how the students responded to her work as well as the administrative experiences that make teaching so difficult.
Now she has returned to Hartford Stage through Sunday, Feb. 2 with another solo piece – Pike St. I only wish it were as successful.
The story she tells is compelling. Pike Street is on the lower east side NYC; it is 2012 and Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the City and the Northeast. Residents of the lower east side are being urged to move to shelters; in fact the area was flooded and lost electricity for an extended period of time.
In an second floor apartment, a Puerto Rican family has decided to stay put. Evelyn lives in the apartment with her father, and her severely disabled teenage daughter (Candi) who depends on a variety of medical devices requiring electricity to survive, but it is too difficult to get her and the equipment down the stairs of the building. Evelyn’s brother (Manny), who was a hero while serving in Afghanistan is returning home suffering from PTSD.
Sun seldom depends on monologue, instead she creates scenes of dialogue between characters: Evelyn and her father, Evelyn and his girlfriend Migdalia, her father and Migdalia, Manny and a friend and even Evelyn and her downstairs neighbor, the slightly senile, elderly Mrs. Applebaum.
She brings in humor and pathos; the storm has not yet arrived but she is battling on the phone with Con Edison (subject of a funny joke from her father), trying to ensure her daughter’s safety. Candi had been brilliant before a catastrophic brain injury three years earlier.
And yet….despite the story something was missing for me. I kept wondering if this wouldn’t had worked better as a multi-actor play rather than a series of interactions; it is just over 80 minutes in length. While you get to know Evelyn, her father is so briefly sketched that we have little understanding of the man who is the main support (with Manny’s military pay) of the family.
We also don’t get any true understanding of Evelyn; she is sketched rather than developed; a former subway conductor who quit her job to care for her daughter and who is now into the “healing arts.”
The main issue I had with this work, was with Sun’s performance. While she does a fine job creating Evelyn and Migdalia who arrives for a booty call, she is less successful with her creation of her father and Manny’s friend.
Sometimes I was confused as to which character she was portraying. This was particularly so in the case of Mrs. Applebaum and Evelyn’s father, two people that should have been easy to differentiate. At times, each of these characters seemed to become stereotypes in performance; the swaggering macho man and the senile Jewish grandmother. It’s unfortunate because each of these characters could add so much more to the story.
Sun integrates humor into her story as well as the tensions of the diverse neighborhood. The scene with Manny and an Arab shop keeper is tense and frightening. The ending of the work brings gasps.
Ron Russell has directed the play as well as serving as sound designer. His sound truly contributes to the effectiveness of the play.
I left Pike St. with mixed feelings about the work; the story was interesting but in some ways it left me unsatisfied. I wanted to understand these people better. The ending, while dramatic, seemed to move the work in a different direction, a somewhat symbolic direction for which the foundation had not been laid.
Yet, I admired the talent and effort involved in developing and presenting the work.
For tickets, visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com