Having once been a star student, Candace is severely brain-damaged, and cannot breathe unaided, talk, feed or wash herself. But, her mother Evelyn insists, she’s still in there, and will one day make a miraculous recovery to fulfill her calling as a Congresswoman.
It’s through Evelyn that we learn about Candi’s larger-than-life Puerto Rican family and their lives on Pike Street, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. We meet Papi, Candi’s philandering grandfather, and Manny, Evelyn’s brother newly returned from Afghanistan. We meet the eccentric neighbor, Mrs. Applebaum, who tells anyone who will listen to “stop and smell the pickles.” Through their conversations we become acquainted with Evelyn’s late mother, who had a god-given gift for healing and ran a neighborhood botanica – a folk medicine store that sells religious candles and herbal remedies.
This is the universe Sun conjures, with the directorial help of Ron Russell, using little more than a chair. Seamlessly slipping between characters within the confines of a script that consists almost exclusively of dialogue, Sun doesn’t miss a beat. Almost a character in itself is the approaching hurricane, and with the third anniversary of Sandy just passed, this particular kind of anticipation no doubt sends a shiver down many a New Yorker’s spine.
The tension of the play curls around Evelyn’s refusal to move Candi to a shelter for the duration of the storm. Not only is it difficult to get her wheelchair down five flights of stairs, but Candi doesn’t do well in stressful, crowded atmospheres, as Evelyn explains. So we watch as Evelyn is put on hold with Con Edison for hours on end, as she tries to verify whether her apartment building is likely to lose power during the storm. A respirator is essential to Candi’s survival.
For such dark subject matter, there is no shortage of humor between this colorful bunch of characters. In her senility, for example, Mrs. Applebaum forgets that she has known Evelyn since birth. “Welcome to America,” she tells her, to Evelyn’s rolling eyes, after establishing that she’s Puerto Rican. However, the comedy at times veers uncomfortably close to slapstick, which occasionally and unfairly undercuts otherwise powerful or profound moments. I found myself longing for more silence, more opportunities for reflection.
Sun was praised for her powerful tribute to the performance artist Spalding Gray in “Blues for a Gray Sun,” and, more recently for “No Child…,” both one-woman shows. “Pike St.” came to her when, after Sandy, she wondered what happens to the elderly and the disabled and “all those who are unable to make it to a shelter – or who simply don’t want to go,” she said in a Q&A after the show. “New Yorkers are a strong-willed bunch, and many of us feel that the place where we’ll be best protected is inside our home.” Commenting on the shortage of emergency services available to the poor, she said, “We think of these things as tragedies, but they’re really the inevitable result of poverty and inequality in our society, and they’re preventable.”
“Pike St.” is running at the Abrons Art Center at 466 Grand St. through December 19.