Front Row Reviews

“Cost of Living” Magnifies Vulnerabilities of the Physically Disabled

 Martyna Majok’s thought-provoking play “Cost of Living,” staged at Oakland Theater Project, delves deeply into the physical constraints and emotional turmoil experienced by the physically disabled.

Under Emile Whelan’s insightful direction, sentimentality gives way to raw, moment-to-moment portrayals of two couples. Whelan adeptly balances the characters’ emotions with the weighty challenges they face.

The unique set, crafted by Emile Whelan, presents a close-quartered blend of two apartments. A grayscale backdrop with two distinct bathing areas dominates—one equipped with a full tub and the other designed to accommodate a wheelchair. Positioned to the right is a bed, and also a window revealing changing weather. This all adds atmospheric dimension to the play, especially when paired with the music by sound designer Ray Archie and dynamic lighting by Kevin Myrick.

Empathetic and guilt-ridden Eddie (Daniel Duque-Estrada) captivates with a poignant opening soliloquy, inviting the audience to sit with him on one of the bar stools. Duque-Estrada’s impassioned delivery breathes life into Majok’s lyrical and poetic words. He transports us back in time to his battle to be caretaker to his angry ex-wife Ani, a paraplegic. Eddie fosters interdependency, fearful of his own loneliness. He reminds Ani and the audience: “People don’t go after people unless they need them,” echoing a universal truth about the importance of human interdependence.

In a tender moment, Eddie bathes Ani with soft deliberate movements as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata envelops both her and the audience—a touching portrayal of intimacy. Intimacy is a warm shadow that hovers over both couples as each caretaker touches their clients.   

Sharp-tongued Ani (Christine Bruno) grapples with the aftermath of a devastating car accident that left her with spinal paralysis. She mourns the loss of her former body, speaking of it as a separate entity beyond her control: “Anytime I reach past my body, it gets violent.” Despite her grief, she ulimately finds solace in her imagination, weaving stories that power her fantasies. With piercing wit and humor, Bruno navigates the anger and anguish of depending on others. Yet, Bruno’s many facial nuances breathe meaning into silence.

Carla Gallardo (Jess) & Matty Placencia (John) 

Princeton-educated and cocky, John (Matty Placencia) was born with cerebral palsy, which he masks behind an air of intellectual superiority, in addition to waves of rage and grief. Hiring the spirited and resilient Jess (Carla Gallardo) as his caregiver after a testy encounter, John asserts his elitist autonomy. Nevertheless, we see through Placencia seamless changes. As Jess begins to care for him, John’s facade crumbles, revealing his deep-seated insecurities and dependency.

Jess, a first-generation immigrant and fellow Princeton alumna, struggles to make ends meet, sleeping in her car and working as a bar waitress at dives. However, with no familial support, she finds herself entrenched in lower-class struggles. A struggle that shatters many immigrant’s dreams.

Despite initial hostility, her relationship with John gradually evolves into one of mutual understanding. Wrestling with feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness, Jess confronts her past choices head-on. Gallardo’s fast-paced, self-effacing dialogue illuminates Jess’s desperate circumstances. Gallardo balances humor with profound depth.

Majok’s dialogue shines with honesty, wit, and lyrical passages, opening our eyes to a world many of us seldom experience. “Cost of Living” not only examines how society marginalizes individuals, but also how these marginalized individuals internalize and perpetuate their own oppression.

Ultimately, the play provides a crucial opportunity for us to become more engaged with disabled individuals whom we may overlook, or even fear approaching. We need to intergrate, not segregate.

See this challenging play! Experience the feelings and thoughts of an often misunderstood and forgotten population.

“Cost of Living” by Martyna Majok, directed by Emile Whelan, at Oakland Theater Project, Oakland,CA Info:, to Sunday, March 24, 2024

cast: Christine Bruno, Daniel Duque-Estrada, Carla Gallardo, Matty Placencia

Banner photo: Christine Bruno (Ani) & Daniel Duque-Estrada (Eddie). Photos: Ben Krantz Studio