ON STAGE NOW  in its Boston premiere is 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winner COST OF LIVING presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at The BCA Calderwood. I had NO idea what to expect going forward– which is how I like it. This show in turn rewarded me by taking me places I had never been before and made me both uncomfortable but grateful for the experience.

Lewis D.Wheeler & Stephanie Gould/Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Martyna Majok’s Tony-nominated play takes a very intimate look at the lives of four people, the toll life takes, and the price we are willing to pay if we are to live that life meaningfully in connection with others, all of us suffering the “natural shocks this flesh is heir to.”  The play is arranged as a pair of parallel tales that awkwardly come together in the last act. Both stories involve characters with disabilities played by actors with disabilities. This stipulation by the playwright certainly provides opportunities for actors with disabilities, but also gives the production a heightened sense of reality, and for me, elicited an acute sense of vulnerability.

The first character we meet is an out-of-work truck driver named Eddie in an opening monologue brilliantly delivered by veteran actor Lewis D. Wheeler. He sits downstage right, in the shadow of life after the death of his estranged wife Ani (Stephani Gould) who suffered a spinal cord injury after their separation. Wheeler rides the waves of grief, guilt, loneliness, and wry humor with an earthiness and warmth that immediately invite us in. We get a glimpse back in time at his and Ani’s life post accident as Gould’s Ani is toughing it out resisting Eddie’s need to help her. Though he’s broke, Eddie too is toughing it out and insists on caring for Ani in the midst of her pain and resentment. At first, Gould sitting stiffly in her wheelchair seemed overly strident in her harshness, but gradually we see the bald truth in her darkly funny wisecracks and admire her courage. Eddie’s persistence cuts through her defensiveness with the slow drip of what clearly becomes compassion– and she lets him in.

Gina Fonseca & Sean Leviashvili/ Photo Nile Scott Studios

The second tale mirrors the first– with a twist. On the other side of a minimal but ingenious set by Janie E. Howland, Jess a down on her luck Ivy league grad and daughter of immigrants (Gina Fonseca) applies for a job as caregiver to John (Sean Leviashvili) a well-to-do PhD student with cerebral palsy. Though they’re of different socio-economic backgrounds, John and Gina are on a par intellectually and wield a mutual self-confidence which levels the playing field and charges their interchanges. Fonseca and Leviashvili are funny and feisty together and generate palpable chemistry. What happens next I did not see coming.

The play centers two scenes– both involving care-givers ministering to the intimate, hygienic needs of those for whom they are caring. Director Alex Lonati stages these scenes gracefully and discreetly, but graphically enough for us to feel the nakedness of these moments–physically and emotionally and we are held there in that challenging place for a long time. The audience is required to witness and become deeply aware of what it takes not only to live with a disability and let oneself be cared for, but also to experience the vulnerability it takes to care for someone intimately and manage whatever such intimacy requires. These scenes and at least one of those relationships upended my expectations to reveal a hidden bias I did not know I had about guilt and a hierarchy of disabilities.

Unfortunately, the ending did not ring true. Thematically pat and dramatically flat, it just didn’t rise to the level of complexity and emotional truth the rest of the play lead us to expect. Even so, I think COST OF LIVING running through March 30– is worth it.