ALT: ‘Living’ not easy in award-winning drama

By John Lyle Belden

This is a story about entrapment. It is people trapped by situations, accidents, choices – even their own bodies. What you pay to deal with that is the “Cost of Living,” a play by Martyna Majok presented by American Lives Theatre at the Fonseca Theatre.

Eddie (Clay Mabbitt) seems to be stuck in the Twilight Zone. To deal with loss, the former trucker leaves texts at an old number that has mysteriously texted him back. And now, the trap has snapped on you in the audience. This isn’t the main plot point, and as we get into the next scene, we’re not even sure where what we just saw fits. Hold on, though, it’s worth working our way back out.

John (Preston Dildine) has a mind that’s making him rich, and a body with cerebral palsy that requires him to hire someone to bathe it. In a manner like pelting with stones, he questions Jess (Teneh Karimu) to see if she is of the mettle to do the undignified job. Also, he finds it intriguing that she is Ivy-educated, yet works all night waitressing at bars. 

Ani (Olivia Mozzi) really doesn’t want to deal with Eddie right now. She’s managing well enough since the accident that shattered her spine, and would rather have someone other than her ex taking care of her. But he, babbling attempts at kindness and bouncing like a hyper puppy, really wants to help. 

This Indianapolis premiere of the 2018 Pulitzer-winning drama is directed and stage-managed by ALT founder and Artistic Director Chris Saunders, who made a point of casting people with disabilities in the two chair-bound roles (their actual conditions are different than what is portrayed). Don’t look for heroic uplift from them; they portray genuine people trying to live as best they can – like those of us without wheels. This helps give the actors meat to work with, lending dimension to John and Ani that contrasts with the binds that able-bodied Eddie (mental) and Jess (economic) find themselves struggling against. 

The chemistry between Dildine and Karimu is compelling. Mozzi takes someone who is a bitter pill and makes us love her. And Mabbitt has the chops to keep a character that means well but overtalks in that likable lane between pathetic and comic caricature. 

Where will these characters be when the “bill” comes due? “Cost of Living” runs through April 30 at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org.

Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.