Gina Fonseca and Sean Leviashvili in “Cost of Living.”/NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

‘Cost of Living’ shines light on living with disabilities

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‘Cost of Living’ shines light on living with disabilities

Gina Fonseca and Sean Leviashvili in “Cost of Living.”/NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Caring and being cared for are universal needs often fulfilled at great personal cost. As Martyna Majok powerfully demonstrates in her 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Cost of Living,” these needs can be all the more challenging for people with disabilities. Under the strong direction of Alex Lonati, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s Boston area premiere captures the emotional journeys and physical challenges of two such people – John, a Princeton graduate student with cerebral palsy and Ani, a New Jersey wife paralyzed with a spinal cord injury as the result of an accident.

Janie E. Howland’s smart scenic design places John and Ani’s respective stories side by side – with the former stage right and the latter stage left. The apartment building backdrop contains window evocations with shadows suggesting residents struggling with their own bouts of loneliness. The title costs have as much to do with John and Ani’s caregivers as they do with the challenged man and woman themselves. Playwright Majok writes with authority and insight as someone who actually served as a personal care aide herself. Her knowledge invests John’s caregiver Jess – a Princeton alum herself – with remarkable authenticity as she shaves, dresses and lifts him to his shower seat.

By contrast, unemployed truck driver and would be caregiver Eddie admits to being sober for the last 12 of 21 faithful years with Ani. Insisting that he has come a long way, Eddie does what he can to care for Ani and helps her bathe. Common to both John and Ani is an ongoing quest for self-realization.

That focal quest informs the attitude-rich exchanges between John and Jess and the blunt banter between Ani and Eddie. Humor and flirting have their moments in the former as Jess speaks of using perfume samples from Sephora and a date becomes an option. To the play’s credit, what follows avoids any neat resolution. In fact, an unusual meeting between Eddie and Jess creates a satisfying new possibility for connection.

To ensure the full authenticity of the caregiving and the individual quests for real living and connection, playwright Majok specifically asks that John and Ani be played by actors with disabilities – a request richly carried out by SpeakEasy Stage. Sean Leviashvili, a Jewish New Yorker who was born with cerebral palsy, captures John’s vocal tension and his demanding stance in initially interviewing Jess and making sure his needs are fulfilled. Stephanie Gould, who grew up with cerebral palsy in Melrose, finds Ani’s tenacity and spunk in the face of vulnerability and conflict with Eddie. Lewis D. Wheeler catches Eddie’s angst and profound loneliness – especially in the vivid prologue. Boston University graduate and Cuban American Gina Fonseca has all of first generation immigrant Jess’ attitude and street savvy as she cares for John and begins to feel drawn to him. Wheeler and Fonseca make the unusual encounter between Eddie and Jess alternately edgy and touching.

For some theatergoers “Cost of Living” will be a valuable eye-opening to the spirit and strengths of people with disabilities as they confront their daunting challenges. For all audience members, Majok’s uplifting play should provide always timely insight about the pricelessness of human connection. Θ

“Cost of Living” runs through March 30 at the SpeakEasy Stage Company, 539 Tremont St., Boston.

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