Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mastrosimone sent Sunshine to Dark & Stormy as they were rehearsing their production of Extremities last summer, recognizing the good match between the play and the theater company. He made some updates to his original script, which remains unpublished, so that Sunshine now takes place in 1995 and is set in Providence, Rhode Island, although the story could be at home in any North American city.
Sunshine is the tale of a man and woman from different worlds who meet under peculiar circumstances and discover that their different worlds don't necessarily make them so different from each other. Sunshine is the "professional" name of a woman who is a performer in a sex parlor, giving verbal and physical encouragement to men who pay $1.00 per minute for giving them her attention from behind plate glass. We see her in action in the first scene, using her voice, her body, and her open-hearted demeanor to bring satisfaction to a shy college student.
The second scene, which constitutes the bulk of the 90-minute play, takes place in Nelson's disheveled one room apartment. Sunshine desperately pounds on his door seeking escape from her abusive husband Jerry, who is in pursuit. With great reluctance, Nelson allows her in. He is an EMT and waiting for an important long-distance phone call from "his lady," as he tells Sunshine, and she finds his use of that phrase a sign of his gentility. Nelson uses his EMT skills to treat Sunshine's knee, badly scraped when she jumped from Jerry's moving car. Sunshine persuades Nelson to allow her to stay until she is certain Jerry has left the vicinity, with the provision that she exit immediately when his call comes.
For an hour or so, Sunshine and Nelson make assumptions about one another, some correct, some not. When the phone finally rings, things do not go as expected. Sunshine and Nelson begin to find common ground and a tenderness unfamiliar to both of them takes hold. But the language of intimacy Sunshine uses in her work and her ability to express her personal feelings prove difficult to distinguish. In the brief final scene, back in the sex parlor two weeks later, the college student is again separated from Sunshine by glass. A resolution, of sorts, occurs: we know what happens, but not where it will lead.
Mastrosimone has done a skillful job of developing the relationship between Sunshine and Nelson, with dialogue that is fully believable and true to the unlikely context of their encounter. Nothing that they say, nothing that they do, feels contrived or artificial. Sunshine is basically a two-character play bookended by short, though potent, scenes that include a third character, and director Mel Day has created a synergy in the interactions between these characters that bring a degree of meaning beyond the words they utter.
Sara Marsh (who is Dark & Stormy's Artistic Director) is terrific as Sunshine, a part that could have been written for her talents. She is by turns sexy, wound-up, funny and smart, and projects vulnerability that cloaks an inner strength that has enabled her to survive a life of hard knocks. Her attempts at self-improvement, such as a word-a-day program that has her repeatedly use the word "besmirch"today's wordare both funny and touching, as is her account of how she came to have a pet lobster. She also nails the Providence accent, a weird blend of Boston and Bronx speech patterns.
Nels Lennes matches her as Nelson, convincingly creating a man who is to kind-hearted to turn Sunshine away, even in the midst of a serious crisis in his own life. As Lennes' Nelson reveals more and more of his situation to Sunshineand, in fact, to himselfhe makes visible his increasing hurt and vulnerability. I had not previously seen Lennes, who has been especially active in improv, but hope to see more of his work in the future. Tony Sarnicki as Robby, the college student, has far less to do, but he does it well, making a palpable leap from innocence to obsession.
Dark & Stormy's intimate theater is a "found space" in a reclaimed industrial building in Northeast Minneapolis. It makes a perfect setting for Nelson's shabby apartment, aided by Lizzy Hallas's modest set design. Lisa Jones' costumes are spot on for the characters, and Mary Shabatura sound and light designs provide further connections to the reality of Nelson and Sunshine's lives.
Dark & Stormy Productions deserves credit for mounting this little known play, and bringing it to the public eye. It is a small story, but its characters have flesh and blood realism that gives added meaning to the story, and weight to the questions it raises about how people who are drawn to rescue others find the strength to save themselves. That, and the strong performances, make Sunshine definitely worth seeing.
Sunshine continues through January 9, 2016, presented in partnership with ArtsSpace at the Grain Belt Warehouse, 77 13th Avenue N.E, Studio 201, Minneapolis, Tickets: $25.00, under age 30 tickets: $15.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or go to darkstormy.org.
Written by William Mastrosimone; Director: Mel Day; Set Design: Lizzy Hallas; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting and Sound Design: Mary Shabatura; Props Design: Sarah Holmberg; Production Stage Manager: Jared Ziegler; Production Assistant: Jeremy Ellarby; Assistant Stage Manager: Rick Miller
Cast: Nels Lennes (Nelson), Sara Marsh (Sunshine), Tony Sarnicki (Robby)