I shall never forget the impression disabled actor Ali Stroker made on me when I saw her on Broadway in “Oklahoma” in 2019. Her compelling performance won her a Tony Award. Yes, she is in a wheelchair, but more importantly, she gave such a vivid performance, her disability became an afterthought. On the local front, it’s refreshing and compelling in its significance to see two disabled actors playing characters in the Indiana premiere of “Cost of Living” by Martyna Majok, presented by American Lives Theatre. The 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, which I saw on Friday, runs through April 30 at Fonseca Theatre.
The playwright stipulates disabled actors must play the disabled characters in the play. Following that directive, ALT artistic director, founder, and show director Chris Saunders cast Olivia Mozzi, who has cerebral palsy, as Ani, and Preston Dildine, who has muscular dystrophy and nephropathy, as John. Both performers use wheelchairs. The casting, which is certainly not meant to be viewed as a gimmick or novelty of any sort, is the intention of Majok for disabled people to have opportunities to tell their own stories.
Clay Mabbitt plays Eddie, an unemployed truck driver who reconnects with his angry and embittered ex-wife Ani, who became quadriplegic after a horrific car accident and needs significant at-home health care. Both lonely, things are tense between them, as Eddie seeks to resume their relationship and Ani keeps him at arm’s length. Dildine’s character John is a wealthy and acerbic doctoral student, who has cerebral palsy. He hires closed-off and wounded Jess, a bar worker played by Tenéh Karimu, to serve as his personal aid. As Jess begins caring for John, she discovers his vulnerability and begins to feel romantic affection for him. What binds these four people together is mutual need. “Cost of Living” explores themes of economic insecurity, especially for those who can’t afford health care, relationships impacted adversely by disability, privilege, and human connection.
As far as the actors’ performances, each actor had his or her strengths and even shining moments, but at the same time, unevenness and inexperience showed. Particularly strong, however, was the performance of Mabbitt as Eddie, who gamely tries to re-establish a relationship with his estranged wife. Mabbitt was very convincing in a lengthy opening monologue in which his character talks to an unseen bar patron, explaining how he came to be there that evening. From that point on, flashbacks occur, in which scenes focusing on the two couples switch back and forth.
This moving play, which is anything but sentimental and even blunt, is about marginalized people who depend on each other. American Lives Theatre, which values inclusiveness and transformative art once again scores big with Majok’s deeply human portrayal of life with disabilities. But it’s also a play about surviving in a world where the political and social climate can isolate us from one another. Life can be tough, and this play is a good reminder that no man is an island.
For “Cost of Living” tickets, visit Americanlivestheatre.org