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Merry Christmas! Dark & Stormy wraps up a riveting play on love, loss, and the sex industry

Tony Sarnicki, Sara Marsh

Tony Sarnicki, Sara Marsh

Apart from the sad, Charlie Brown-like poinsettia sitting in the corner of the set, there's nothing to connect Dark & Stormy's Sunshine to the holiday season. But the production is a gift for audiences willing to embark on a riveting emotional ride.

Playwright William Mastrosimone also wrote Extremities, a two-by-four to the face about rape and revenge. This time his topic is the sex industry.

Sunshine spends her nights working behind a glass window in a seedy joint in Providence, Rhode Island. She offers erotic conversation to her clients, who fulfill their fantasies for a dollar a minute.

Sunshine's good at what she does. She's on the marquee and the pay is good, too. You could say she's carved out a piece of the American dream. But her happiness is paper thin. That comes into focus one night when she tries to escape her abusive husband and knocks on the grungy door of a stranger's apartment.

Nelson is a man who guards his emotions like a fortress. The force-of-nature Sunshine leaves him powerless. He can't get her to leave. Can't halt her motormouth. Can't stop her from using up his milk to make a comforting bowl of instant pudding.

Nelson is a paramedic who has learned to keep his emotions at arm's length. That helps with the turmoil of his job, but isn't so helpful in relationships, which is why he's waiting in his seedy apartment for his ex-wife to call.

One of the simplest writing exercises is to put two characters in a room and see what happens. Mastrosimone's frank, probing, and even funny dialogue makes this work. The other half of the equation is the actors, Sara Marsh and Nels Lennes.

Marsh, as Sunshine, comes off as bright if uneducated, with a blind spot about her abusive husband. Even when she's quiet, you can sense her empathy for others.

Lennes' Nelson is a tough nut to crack with his emotional distance and distress at having his space invaded. As he slowly opens up, we feel every heartbreak in his love life and harrowing moment at his job.

The lengthy exchange between Sunshine and Nelson is bookended by scenes of Sunshine working behind the glass. During her shifts, she is visited by Robby, a college student, who believes every sweet word Sunshine tells him — to the point that he's willing to spend his funds for school and food to give her money. It's not an easy role, but Tony Sarnicki pulls off the change from a sweet-faced Midwesterner in the first scene to a desperate sort of addict in the second.

This is the third year in a row that Dark & Stormy has offered audiences a well-made and deeply engrossing December show. It's a Christmas gift I'll gladly take — and you should, too.

IF YOU GO:

Sunshine
Grain Belt Warehouse
79 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Through Jan. 9; 612-401-4506