The disfigured young woman moving slowly and clumsily onstage catches your eye the moment you enter Pillsbury House Theatre, even though “Pike St.” is not supposed to start for another 15 minutes. Seated between two shelves lined with unlit candles, she rocks from side to side, eyes closed, hands contorting into an asymmetrical tangle as cable news plays on the TV.
It feels odd to engage in small talk in the presence of this struggling girl, a brain-damaged teen named Candi — one of a host of characters played sensitively and absorbingly in this solo show by writer/actor Nilaja Sun. And that’s by design. “Pike St.” starts before the action officially begins. And its characters stay with you long after Sun, a captivating virtuoso, takes her bows.
Set as a hurricane bears down on New York, the play’s narrative swirls around a Puerto Rican family, their neighbors and friends who live near a bridge on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The coterie that Sun summons includes Candi’s devoted mom, Evelyn, who is studying to become a healer; Papi, the widower patriarch who shares the home with his daughter and granddaughter and is expecting a sex worker over soon; Manny, Evelyn’s troubled war hero brother who is returning from Afghanistan; a Yemeni shopkeeper; and Mrs. Applebaum, an elderly Jewish neighbor who is just now finding out that Martin Luther King Jr. is no longer of this world (she makes no mention of Frederick Douglass).
Sun’s remarkable achievement is to draw these characters so clearly and distinctly that we never lose track of them, even when she’s moving with quicksilver changes in this 75-minute show, staged efficiently by Ron Russell. She uses verbal tics and gestures to sketch her colorful community. She pouts, she parries, she thrusts. Her theatrical tools are expertly employed, but the marvel of her performance is that it seems like a total possession, to the point where her characters efface her. We feel their presence. We hear their hopes and their heartbeats.
That Sun is performing in “Pike St.” is a first-time opportunity that Twin Cities theatergoers should not miss. This is truly a tour de force.
Sun comes to the theater with some luster. She has appeared on such TV shows as “Madam Secretary,” “The Good Wife” and “30 Rock.” She won an Obie for “No Child,” her breakout solo work, which ran successfully in 2009-10 at Pillsbury House with Sonja Parks inhabiting well over a dozen characters.
There’s a long history of solo theater performances, one that has quickened in recent years by the achievements of Anna Deavere Smith. Sun is not quite in that rarefied air, but her turn in “Pike St.,” performed with lyricism and love, is captivating.
At the end of Wednesday’s opening-night performance, the audience leapt to its feet. This ovation was not the polite one we usually see in Minnesota, but a sustained, prolonged cheer for a performer who has dreamed and delivered a world. Brava, indeed.