‘Cost of Living’ shows guts and grace

Ani is looking at her separated husband of 20 years. She is tensed, ready to turn away, a rasp in her voice — the rawness of stale arguments and too many familiar ways to be hurt. And she is trying to tell him the effect music is supposed to have on a body that no longer moves but may not wholly have forgotten how.

She was in a car accident just before the divorce came through. And Eddie, her soon-to-be-ex husband, gets the emergency phone call. So he is standing in the bare living room in her new apartment, reaching out, cutting her off, turning on music, wanting to be there.

She’s giving him a look that says this is my life, and it’s my say.

We’re in Jersey, in a tough industrial stretch far removed from Cobble Hill. Outside this theater it’s July in the mountains, and a warm wind is running through the maple trees on campus; inside the Nikos Stage at the ’62 Center, it’s winter in the city, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival is premiering Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living.”

And on stage, across town from Eddie (Wendell Pierce) and Ani (Katy Sullivan), Jess (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is walking into a swank apartment near her own college campus to apply for a job. She has gotten off her shift at a bar around 4 a.m., and she will now be coming to John’s apartment by 6 a.m. to help him get ready for class.

John (Gregg Mozgala) is a Ph.D. student from Harvard, charismatic, humorous, polished. He has the resources to hire his own personal attendants, and he seems to have taken charge of the process since his college days. He has cerebral palsy. He describes the tension of the joints and how it feels to move against that pressure. And he assesses Jess with assurance, even when she is shaving him. This is my life, and I own it.

It’s a tensile strength in this play, as these four people navigate physical intimacy they have come to by necessity, and the intimacies it brings with it whether they like it or not — and set them against a fundamental uncertainty.

What do you do when you know you can lose something foundational at any moment — your job, your family, the woman you have loved all your adult life, your health, your mobility, your body, your life?

Every good moment, every feeling of something honest and shared, has a cost.

What do you do when this is not one loss but a weight you have always lived with?

The answer comes with gentleness and fear and intense courage.

You get up. You go to work. You choose to drink seltzer at a bar. And you keep on making that choice. Again. Eddie has been sober for 12 years. I know what I could do, he tells us. I always know what I could do.

Jess tells John she sleeps for fun. And when he presses her about what she does in her free time, when he tries to tell her no one can work all the time, she tells him people do.

All four of these people adapt with core strength in a world they can’t trust.

They live with a precarious balance, knowing something small and stupid can tip it. In the face of that pressure, what does it take to open a door?

It’s like getting hit all the time, under the skin, John says, explaining how his body moves. You have to throw yourself at what you want.

And when they do I walk out into the summer night wet with tears.

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