Martyna Majok’s The Cost of Living won the Pulitzer for Drama in 2018. It centers on the emotional and physical obstacles faced by four ordinary people, two of whom live with disabilities. The play flashes backward and forward, charting several eventful months in their lives, and exploring the difficulties and challenges of giving and receiving care.
On opening weekend for the current production at black box-style Side Door space at Trustus Theatre, Bauer Westeren and Kathy LaLima, disabled actors themselves, played John and Ani, characters confined to wheelchairs and in need of assistance with the basics of daily existence, such as bathing and dressing. Economic necessity — the less metaphorical cost of living — compels Ani’s ex-husband Eddie (Eric Bultman) and feisty bartender Jess (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler) to provide that care. In alternating scenes, each pair of characters navigated the mechanics and inescapable intimacy of their circumstances, with all of the expected sparring and bantering as a very dissimilar man and woman strove to find a way to co-exist.
John, a Harvard grad working on a doctorate at Princeton comes from privilege. Unlike Ani, he grew up with his condition, resulting in a sort of sheltered innocence and awkward lack of empathy, but also greater independence, whereas Ani survived an accident with her caustic Jersey gal wit intact. LaLima was quite convincing as she lashed out in anger over her new situation, while still managing to make Ani sympathetic. Westeren created a complex character, simultaneously vulnerable and annoying; John may have had little chance outside the classroom to develop social skills, but Westeren’s portrayal suggested that his blunt and finicky nature was nevertheless a core component of his personality.
Rodillo-Fowler added yet another outstanding performance to a prolific career on local stages that has included playing everything from a nihilistic French maid and a regal Parsi princess to a histrionic high school drama teacher and even Barbara Walters. Here, she imbued Jess with a sense of pathos that her affected “don’t mess with me” swagger only partially concealed. (To her credit, I noted that she maintained that swagger even during scene changes where she was almost invisible.)
But top acting honors go to Bultman, who mesmerized the audience with an opening monologue of 10 minutes or more, in which he recounted with poetic eloquence his conflicted relationship with his wife.
Two American Sign Language interpreters were stationed at stage right, each signing for one character in each scene. While ASL often includes plenty of facial expressions to make a point, I found it fascinating to periodically look over at the two young ladies signing, and see how they too were acting out the often intense emotions being relayed by the actors.
Although the script’s language was decidedly R-rated, the extensive swearing was casual and conversational. Extended scenes where Ani and John were bathed by their caregivers were handled with tact and dignity for all involved.
Ultimately, the play is not the affirming statement about people perceived as “differently abled” — a term John mocks — that one might expect, but rather a character study of different types of resilience. While the twist ending might seem too convenient or mawkish to some, others will likely find it heartwarming and endearing.
Brandon McIver’s scenic design allowed for a traditional seating arrangement, with the action playing out directly in front of the audience. Rectangular panels in neutral shades of gray were moved and rearranged to establish the basics of walls, doors, a bathtub, a shower and the suggestion of artwork decorating the walls. With two of the four characters limited in mobility, director Paul Kaufmann was able to concentrate his actors’ focus on the nuances of the characters’ personalities and motivations, and the richness of the script’s language.
While the play is usually presented in one act, Kaufmann wisely inserted an intermission, resulting in a run time that clocked in right at two hours. In keeping with the core Trustus mission of presenting works unlikely to be produced elsewhere in town, The Cost of Living has no musical numbers or adorable cartoon characters, instead creating a rocky terrain of ideas and emotions, intricately traversed by its director and cast.
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