I lift my legs into the bathtub and wrap my arms around two stagehands who help me into the warm water. I take a deep breath and think about the upcoming scene. Ani, played by me, recently became a quadriplegic and is being bathed by Eddie, her soon to be ex-husband. Their relationship is complex and heated. As he washes her body, they open up and are vulnerable with each other. Ani shares that even though she “can’t feel much of anything there,” she still has sexual desires. Relationships, sexuality and disability are rarely explored in entertainment, and it’s empowering to say those lines. As the music cue starts, I revolve onto the stage.
Cost of Living, written by Martyna Majok, premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016, had an off-off-Broadway production in 2017, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 and is currently being produced throughout the world. In addition to Eddie and Ani, the play follows John, a wealthy graduate student with cerebral palsy, and his new caregiver, Jess. Because Majok’s script reads, “Please cast disabled actors in the roles of John and Ani,” these characters are being played by actors with disabilities.
Katy Sullivan originated the role of Ani and has played it 170 times in four separate productions. “When I first read the play, I knew nothing about Martyna, but thought, ‘This person has either needed care or been a caregiver. It was too accurate,’” says Sullivan, who is a bilateral above-knee amputee. “Come to find out, she was a caregiver.”
Sullivan, who received critical acclaim and numerous award nominations for her portrayal of Ani, has appeared on television shows like Last Man Standing and NCIS: New Orleans, mostly playing veterans. “Being a woman who is a performer with a disability, so little of what we get to do includes sexuality,” says Sullivan. “Having the opportunity to explore a relationship, a marriage in this way … I mean, ‘groundbreaking’ is not even the word to use. It’s literally worldview changing.”
While society teaches us to turn away, not stare and not ask questions when we see a person with a disability, Cost of Living insists that audiences look — that they see our bodies and hear our stories. Not only is Ani bathed on stage, but John is showered. Jess takes off John’s clothes, transfers him onto a bench, bathes him, dries him, transfers him to his power chair and dresses him. The action feels organic and routine as John and Jess chitchat, enjoying each other’s company. “The shower scene is important because I feel the audience deserves authenticity,” says Tobias Forrest, a quad, who was nominated for an Ovation Award from the LA STAGE Alliance for his portrayal of John in the Los Angeles production. “The shape of my body and the danger of falling are honest. Hopefully my performance challenges and changes the perception of someone who assumes they are watching a nondisabled actor pretending to be disabled.”
Regan Linton, the artistic director of Phamaly, a Denver-based theater company for artists with disabilities, will play Ani in the Round House Theatre’s production of Cost of Living in Bethesda, Maryland, in April. She also played Ani when the play was workshopped in 2016 as part of the Ashland New Play Festival.
“When I see a play that has nudity in it, I’m initially a little bit skeptical. Why did you put this in? What’s the purpose? Are you just trying to use it as shock value?” says Linton. “I don’t feel that is what Martyna did. She does a really great job of maintaining respect and value for Ani and John in that stripping down. You don’t usually see that in plays about disability.”
When I interviewed Linton, we talked about the logistics of being a para acting in a bathtub, such as how I got in and out of it and how handles were added inside the tub so I could hold myself up and pull off a dramatic moment (no spoilers!). We also shared our appreciation that the scene isn’t sentimentalized. “I love that it is very matter-of-fact, and to be able to say, ‘I don’t have feeling in the same way but that doesn’t devalue my entire person,’” says Linton.
As I wrap up the Canadian premiere of Cost of Living and prepare to start rehearsals for the Seattle production, I think about the other disabled actors who have worked on, and who will get to work on this play. “In some ways, this is going to sound stupid, but this is our Hamlet, at least for now,” says Sullivan. “People haven’t written things with this life perspective so richly thought out.” I don’t think that sounds stupid at all.