Review: SpeakEasy Stage Company presents a deeply moving COST OF LIVING

Boston engagement of Pulitzer Prize-winning play runs through March 30

By: Mar. 18, 2024
Review: SpeakEasy Stage Company presents a deeply moving COST OF LIVING
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The four characters in playwright Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Cost of Living” may seem sad and even pitiable, given their loneliness and their daily battles with insecurities and uncertainty. But while there is definite sadness in their individual stories, Majok makes clear that what her complex characters are seeking is connection, not sympathy.

Set in New Jersey in the somewhat recent past, the one-act play presents four people – Eddie, an unemployed truck driver; Ani, his estranged wife with whom he reconciles after her life is changed by a devastating accident; John, a high-achieving PhD student with cerebral palsy; and Jess, his new home health aide and a first-generation Princeton graduate whose life is in a downward spiral – whose lives are testament to the physical and emotional complexity of a world that can be tough to survive for people with and without disabilities.

After its 2016 world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Cost of Living” then moved to New York City Center for a Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) production in 2017. The play made its Broadway debut in the fall of 2022 at the MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It is being given its Boston premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company in an emotionally affecting production at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 30.

Stories involving the disabled have long been presented on the stage, of course, in plays including “The Glass Menagerie,” “Sunrise at Campobello,” “The Miracle Worker,” “The Elephant Man,” “Whose Life is It Anyway?” and “Children of a Lesser God,” and musicals like this season’s “How to Dance in Ohio” and the about-to-open revival of “The Who’s Tommy.”

Able-bodied actors have often been cast to play disabled characters in these and other such works, so it is worth noting that Majok has decreed that the parts of Ani (a fierce and formidable Stephanie Gould) and John (a strong, if mostly unsympathetic Sean Leviashvili) must be cast with disabled actors. In their real lives, Gould and Leviashvili both have cerebral palsy.

The two actors, along with Gina Fonseca, heartbreaking as the unwavering Jess whose challenges seem poised to overwhelm her at any moment, are making memorable SpeakEasy Stage Company debuts in this production. Returning to SpeakEasy Stage, where he has appeared in “Between Riverside and Crazy” and “Shakespeare in Love,” is Lewis D. Wheeler, who plays the down-on-his-luck Eddie.

Wheeler has played some 70 prior roles on Boston-area stages including Hamlet in “Hamlet,” directed for Shakespeare Now! by his father, the late David Wheeler, Cyrano de Bergerac in “Cyrano” for New Rep on Tour, Atticus Finch in Gloucester Stage Company’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller in “The Glass Menagerie,” at Lyric Stage Company. If Wheeler weren’t already well established and in high demand, a tape of his opening monologue, which finds the struggling-with-sobriety Eddie alone in a barroom, would get the actor seen, and likely cast, by any director in Boston and beyond. It is something to behold.

As is this entire production, under the direction of Alex Lonati, SpeakEasy Stage’s Community and Artistic Program Manager, who makes an auspicious debut on the company’s mainstage, deftly guiding her remarkable cast through the full range of emotions, all while honoring Majok’s text by keeping maudlin overtones from finding an entry point.

Also impressive is Janie E. Howland’s angled set design, which features a backdrop of human figures outlined behind glazed windows, demonstrating how over-arching the feeling of isolation is within these four characters. Costume designer Chelsea Kerl and wardrobe supervisor Rebecca Glick provide defining looks for each character that capture both their ages and identities, as well as their socio-economic status. The sets, costumes, and shifting mood of the story are complemented by Amanda E. Fallon’s beautifully executed lighting design.

Photo caption: Stephanie Gould as Ani and Lewis D. Wheeler as Eddie in a scene from the Boston premiere SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "Cost of Living." Photo by Nile Scott Studios.