Renaissance Tackles Potent Pulitzer Winner

'Cost of Living' is strong drama about disabled characters performed by disabled actors.

By - Jan 25th, 2023 12:49 pm
Jamie Rizzo as John and Valentina Fittipaldi as Jess in Renaissance Theaterworks' Cost of Living. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Jamie Rizzo as John and Valentina Fittipaldi as Jess in Renaissance Theaterworks’ Cost of Living. Photo by Ross Zentner.

The rap on a strong new play, “The Cost of Living”—which won a Pulitzer in 2018 – was that it was too intense and too much about loneliness in exploring two struggling caretakers and two people with disabilities. Another knock is that playwright Martyna Majok insists that actually disabled artists should play the two disabled parts, given her truthful observation that disabled people are the largest minority group in the country, woefully under-represented in the arts.

Renaissance Theaterworks seized on the quality and humor of this play and the subtle and even kinetic connections that emerge among this onstage quartet. For this Midwest premiere through Feb. 12 at its 255 N. Water St. home, Renaissance openly embraced the disabled community in choice of cast, partner company, playbill guide and director Ben Raanan. Other plusses: 1.) Provocative storytelling doesn’t have to unfold in linear sequence (beginning, middle and end) and 2.) Patrons will see that the obviously disabled, either by accident or fate, are not the only disabled among the characters or in our lives.

Majok understands the provocative nature of good dialogue in a tight monologue and episodic conversations. She unfolds her observations at their own pace, actually working backwards from Eddie’s bluntly worded discussion of his own setbacks and marriage. His friendly manner, his rough humor, his convoluted efforts to reach out – an engaging naturalistic performance by Bryant Bentley – open up interpretations as two separate storylines with people in wheelchairs merge at the end into an uncertain but hopeful meeting.

There is a danger in giving away too much of the plot. The strength of Raanan’s direction is honest interaction in the basic functions of life and letting knowledge come through observation. The human connections that emerge are not what the characters expected. Inch by inch we learn what is going on as the caretakers learn to tend for their subjects – with some provoking on both sides.

As Ani, the sullen and perceptive wife injured severely in car crash, Regan Linton is a captivatingly precise performer whose mental honesty underlines each look and makes us think about her physical disability in new ways. In one provocative scene she is submerged in a bathtub as she and Eddie talk their way into an accommodation, both revealing vital truths about what draws people to each other.

Meanwhile Jess, a displaced immigrant working late nights in bars, feeling isolated by the rich despite her education, seeks a caretaker job with John, a well-off but severely disabled grad student who grills her in his penetrating halting manner about why she wants the job of shaving and washing him — and will she stick with it despite her naivete about this sort of work?

Jess, in a methodical but forward moving performance by Valentina Fittipaldi, is put off by John’s blunt manner and his fear of human contact but slowly warms to his personality. Both John and Jess send signals the other misunderstands.

John is played by Jamie Rizzo, a disabled actor new to live performance but hardly new to devastating one liners. His cautious watchful delivery becomes attractive. Intimacy of contact, and the need for contact, are keys to understanding this play.

As a side note, I don’t completely agree with the author that every time a non-disabled actor plays a disabled part that is a signal of a “shame-based narrative.” But the statistical evidence is overwhelming that capable disabled actors are being denied opportunities. This production demonstrate they should have their chances.

“The Cost of Living” Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs here and here.

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