Having spent a good part of my adult life in the neighborhoods of New York City and also having survived the catastrophe that was Hurricane Sandy, I was excited to see this one woman show go traipsing around my old stomping ground. What I got was just that...and a ‘4 alarm’ theatrical experience to boot!
Playwright and performer, Nilaja, Sun has created a world of chatty, vibrant, eccentric characters and fills the small Pillsbury proscenium with their giant personalities...yup, all by herself. At first I was assuming the play would be similarly formatted to that of famed Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. Smith changes from character to character with flawless fluidity, monologue to monologue, but amazingly Sun’s characters interact with one another, sometimes two and three people at a time! Sun changes her voice, posture, tics, and volume back and forth in such an elegant and frenzied tennis match, I could see the people she was painting as if I was with her in her lower east side apartment. Stunning! The specificity and timing that was honed to create such a piece, and the continuity throughout the 90 minutes without a break, was truly remarkable. Immediate kudos to Sun for her pluck, tenacity and talent and to director, Ron Russell, for holding on to the potentially highly combustible reigns.
At open we sit in silence with Sun on stage in a chair, wide eyed and subtly yet jerkily reacting to the sounds of distant sirens, muffled voices, thumping baselines and the constant stream of local access news channel, NY1. We soon discover this is Candi, the main character Evelyn’s, severely disabled 15 year old daughter. Evelyn has had to quit her job as a subway conductor to care for her daughter who very recently suffered a brain hemorrhage, (or other unknown brain malfunction), that has left her mute, physically impaired, and essentially unresponsive. The two live with Papi, Evelyn's widowed father, who’s literally flirting with a midlife crisis, in the form of a money hungry neighborhood senora, whose name was obviously too cool for me to remember to write down. NY1 is, according to Evelyn, the only thing that keeps Candi calm so we are inundated with the underlying news, reporting signs of an upcoming superstorm. Evelyn is on hold with Con Edison to make sure her generator will work and will keep Candi’s C-pap machine and respirator running in case of the imminent loss of power. In addition to all of this, Evelyn’s younger brother Manny, a recently decorated war hero, is finally coming back from deployment and the family is preparing for his arrival. This includes elderly neighbor, Mrs. Applebaum, from downstairs who keeps checking to see if he’s home, while also forgetting where she is, and is not at all afraid of the storm having survived the “Renaissance,” the “dust bowl” and in actuality, the Holocaust. Sun weaves her way through these conversations and interactions with the deftness of a skilled craftsman. We learn about Manny’s PTSD and regrets of lost first love, Papi’s philandering and hidden guilt about his time in Vietnam, Evelyn’s desire to become an “energy healer” in desperation and denial of her daughter’s condition, ALL of them trying to find a foothold in their emotionally shaken lives...while the storm continues to roll in.
This piece of theatre was remarkable, and the design team (Meghan Raham- Set, Tyler Micoleau and Michael Wangen- lighting design/direction, Clint Ramos- costume, Kellis Larson-props), should also be commended! The spot on sound and sound mixing gives you the sense of the New York landscape pressing in from the outside, while the white noise, that is the steady stream of NY1 on tv, seeps into our consciousness from within the apartment. The lighting is a hazy wash from the grid (slowly intensifying towards the show’s climax), and is practically represented on stage by multiple prayer candles, or veladoras, that are “lit” and extinguished beautifully by the characters in various scenes. The costumes are simple and colorful and I appreciate that Sun doesn’t get caught up in changing costumes pieces while transitioning from one character to the next, the pace is too fast to allow it so the changes are strictly physical. All of that combined with the intimacy of Pillsbury House Theatre’s mainstage, result in a truly wonderful collaboration of ideas and execution.
The final moments of the play are frantic as the storm comes in full force and the lights begin to flicker. Evelyn is afraid to try the generator because she hasn’t tested it and asks her brother to help. He and Papi have just had a huge “come to Jesus moment” about what really happened to their mother and the storm adds literal fuel to that proverbial fire, as an accident of lit candles and a violent oil spill from the generator sets the whole building ablaze. It’s an unexpected, heartbreaking ending with a glimmer of hope as Candi, the lone survivor of the apartment, is found doing the backstroke in the bathtub, (a move her Papi taught her at a young age) repeating “swim swim swim.” She has survived (perhaps in more ways than one), and might be slowly, miraculously, coming back to her old self.
Sadly the piece closed at Pillsbury House this past weekend otherwise I would be clamouring for you to “go secure tickets immediately,” but Sun and her production team are off to the Detroit Public Theatre and then on to Berkeley Rep, to close out their tour. I will say, however, that Nilaja Sun is a force of nature- so, get to know her, google her, read about her, see if there is anything on YOUtube.com, and if you hear that she’s performing near you in the future, you must GO and see her, know that I will be doing the same.