It seems like forever since I last saw Anna Deavere Smith at the Berkeley Rep.
But she was so good I was sure she’d cornered the repertory’s market on one-women shows in which a performer could switch on a proverbial dime from one character to another, one age group or race to another, one gender to another.
I was mistaken.
Nilaja Sun currently does it — and, believe it or not, with even higher energy — in “Pike St.”
In an brief but dense 80 minutes, the fast-talking Sun, who also wrote the piece, packs in the heaviest thoughts of three generations of Puerto Ricans, a threatening hurricane, mental meanderings into racism, and some multi-layered insights into how folks cope with crisis situations.
And with sporadic humor.
A lot of her drama revolves around Evelyn Vega, a healer and single mom whose mysteriously disabled daughter requires both respirator and dialysis.
But Sun also captures, exquisitely, that brain-damaged teenager, Candace; Evelyn’s horny dad, Poppy; her PTSD-ravaged, Silver Star-winning baby brother, Manny, who can’t erase horrors in Afghanistan from his mind; her memory-impaired Jewish neighbor, the stereotypical Mrs. Gloria Applebaum; a local drug dealer, a purveyor in the numbers racket, as well as…
Sun’s stellar performance is enhanced by perfectly tuned sound effects by the show’s director, Ron Russell, and lighting effects by Tyler Micoleau.
The writer-performer, who’s been doing solo work for a quarter of a century, wants everyone to know she’s based her characters on people she’s cared about — in spite of this throwaway line: “Who isn’t emotionally abusive in New York City?”
She sees herself as a “physical actor,” a skill that’s particularly obvious when she morphs into the cross-legged, cross-armed, mouth-twisted, bug-eyed character of Candi, who can’t speak.
In contrast, Sun jarringly breaks the fourth wall when she invites the Peet’s Theatre audience to clap rhythmically and breathe deeply along with her.
She also invites us to deeply feel her characters, and we do, especially as she nervously lights endless candles while hunkering down in her fifth-floor Lower East Side apartment because too much negative attention was given Candi when they’d previously fled to a shelter.
Sun apparently sees no need to change her wardrobe (blue denim shirt, red jeans and white sneakers, perhaps an homage to a multicultural America) as she speed-changes into those characters.
She invented them, not incidentally, after Hurricane Sandy had made residents powerless for two weeks in the Lower East Side ‘hood where she was reared.
Sun’s strength is her use of potent phraseology that doesn’t, except on rare occasion, rely on the n-word or f-bombs.
The Obie Award-winner, who’s appeared on “Madam Secretary,” “The Good Wife,” “Law and Order: SVU” and “30 Rock,” pretty much sticks to autobiographical sources for her material.
She performed at the Rep in 2008, for example, in “No Child…” — which stemmed from her experience teaching in the New York City public school system while the Bush administration’s faulty “No Child Left Behind” policy was in effect.
Because I have a mentally and physically disabled daughter living in New York, and because my father was born and raised on the Lower East Side, I could easily relate to “Pike St.”
But other theatergoers don’t need any such personal links to appreciate the complex tour de force.
The play’s surprise ending spurred them, in fact, to offer an immediate standing ovation.
Tangentially, in an interview titled “Breathing in crisis mode,” by Sarah Rose Leonard in the Rep’s magazine/program, Sun notes, “My heart broke for Puerto Rico, and it is heartbreaking knowing that there are still people in darkness.”
Despite being thousands of mile away, and a white male, I, too, can feel that pain.
“Pike St.” plays at Peet’s Theatre at the Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, through Dec. 16. Night performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $30 to $90, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.