A contorted character, not speaking, with eyes closed and arms crossed over her chest, sits onstage as patrons enter Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the West Coast premiere of “Pike St.,” actor-writer Nilaja Sun’s charged, often funny, solo show set in New York’s Lower East Side.
This disabled person, in the spotlight from the start, is hard to ignore.
But Sun (who brought her well-received “No Child” to Berkeley Rep in 2008) then morphs into a smiling, matronly lady, who welcomes the audience after shooing seemingly bad spirits out from the room and inviting everyone to take a deep breath.
When the dialogue begins, she’s yet another character, Evelyn, the mom of Candi, the teen at the show’s prelude who’s on life support. Evelyn’s doing battle on the phone with the electric company, trying to ensure the generator in her apartment will keep Candi’s respirator and dialysis machine working when an impending hurricane hits.
Under direction by Ron Russell, the dazzling, fleet-footed Sun masterfully plays all of the other characters, too, over a compact 80 minutes.
Among them are: Evelyn’s senile Jewish neighbor Mrs. Applebaum, who thinks Martin Luther King Jr. died of cancer; her sex-crazed, rum-loving, fast-talking Puerto Rican father Papi; the sassy Spanish-accented Migdalia, who sexually services Papi (“What am I, an immigrant?” she asks, to which Evelyn hilariously replies “Yes, you are”); Evelyn’s war-hero brother Manny, just returning that very day from Afghanistan, displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; and Manny’s joking, pot-smoking African-American pal Tykeen.
Each vividly comes to life as one day in the neighborhood plays out in unexpected ways and the characters come to terms with stresses in their lives — perhaps metaphors to the storm on the way.
Sun displays empathy for all, but most particularly Evelyn, who compellingly tells her not too sensitive father that Candi, who cannot speak or eat, can “feel the vibration of resentment.” It’s a rare, thoughtful, attentive depiction of a unique mother and daughter.
Evelyn, who gave up her day job working for the transit authority to care for her needy child, and who goes to class to become a healer — the simple set has shelves filled with her prayer-laden candles — also takes after own mother, the late Dona Lola, the spirit woman at the top of the show who banishes evil from the room. Dona Lola, we learn, once owned a botánica, but didn’t charge her customers for her healing services.
Although “Pike St.” ends on a darker, more contemplative and somber note than some of the humor at the outset suggests, like its loving, powerful mothers and daughters, it’s all about humans’ need for faith and healing.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. some Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 Sundays; closes Dec. 16
Tickets: $30 to $85
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
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