Nickel and Dimed

root - Posted on 01 March 2004

A PNN ReVieWsfoRtHeReVolUtion of Nickel and Dimed stage play

by TJ Johnston/PNN Community Journalist

When playwright Joan Holden talked about the San Francisco premiere of her play "Nickel and Dimed," based on Barbara Ehrenreich's nonfiction account of her infiltration of the world of the low-wage worker, she hoped that this production would be "more than a play, but a community event." Holden's dramatization is already developing quite a production history. It premiered at Seattle's Intiman Theater last year and has since trotted the boards at LA, Providence, RI, Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago and elsewhere.
Last weekend, the show opened at the Brava Theater Center following a month-long run at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Both theaters are co-presenting the show.

I thought about Holden's aspirations of drawing together a community on last Saturday's performance. Joe Bolden, my Poor Magazine colleague, and I observed the diversity of the audience. Joe assessed that the house to be a combination of "money, middle class and no money." Having attended various shows populated by the white, affluent season-subscription crowd, I couldn't agree more. Opening week has already hosted fundraisers for Yes on Prop L, San Francisco's initiative to increase minimum wage, and Health Care for Working Families, a campaign by the California Labor Federation.

The translation from page to stage began when Intiman's artistic director Bart Sher listened to an NPR interview of Ehrenreich about her undercover experiences as a waitress, nursing home aide, maid and Wal-Mart "associate" during the supposed prosperity of the Clinton era. She offhandedly proposed to an editor that someone should get their hands dirty and was quickly assigned the task. Sher decided that it should be a play and commissioned Holden to make it so. The role of Barbara was originated (and is continued to be played) by Sharon Lockwood.

The theatrical version, I must say, is very true to the spirit of the book (and Joe might add that it's true to life). The classic three-act structure was observed where each act represented the stops in Florida, Maine and Minnesota in Barbara's journey. She is aided by an ensemble who double, triple and even quadruple their roles of wage slaves and masters. The players also give new meaning to "running crew" as they adeptly performed quick scenery changes. Among the characters, Susy McInerny stood out as Holly, a Happy Maid who starves for her boss's approval as much as she does physically, and Elizabeth Carter, in her portrayal of housekeeper Carlie, who suspects Barbara to be a spy. The rest of the company (Cristina Anselmo, Julia Brothers, and Rod Gnapp) also find distinct characterizations as principals in the customer service realm. They are ably accompanied by guitarist Michael Goldberg, who put them through their paces as much as director Dan Chumley. A scene at Mall Mart includes a song and dance about the store's "family values." Now, if only Barbara finds out how much they actually pay?

In addition to exploring the nature of shit work (and that topic is literally discussed in a toilet-cleaning scene), Barbara also navigates a difficult course of limited housing and food options. She houses herself in motels and trailers and at one point, avails herself to a food pantry. Projected titles of hourly pay and weekly rent inform what little employees must work with, but Barbara's trenchant observations ("the less you have, the more everything costs you") drives it home.

"Nickel and Dimed" isn't content on just being a latter-day living newspaper. At one point, the actors break the fourth wall and ask the audience who has ever hired a cleaning person and how much they paid them. Rates ranged from $15 to $20 an hour and after a debate among the actors, they concurred that dirty jobs should pay the most!

Barbara initially confronts her middle-class privilege, but the succession of service sector subservience takes its toll. Where manufactured personality exams and drug tests fail, power-tripping bosses and arbitrary rules assault her dignity. "How deep is the corrosive nature of humiliation?" she ponders. "How many times can you bend before the damage sets in---repetitive stress of the spirit?" Even when she stands up for her co-workers, they suspect her of ulterior motives. On the rare occasions where Barbara reveals herself, her co-workers are nonplussed.

"Nickel and Dimed" in its theatrical incarnation has legs and moves so sprightly, its two-hour-plus running time escaped my notice. It engages its audience and celebrates the people who Barbara calls "our major philanthropists" who subsidizes the comfort of others at their own expense. Thinking back to Holden's comments about creating a community event, I must conclude "mission accomplished."

Nickel and Dimed, a co-production by Brava! For Women in the Arts and TheatreWorks, will run at the Brava Theater Center at 2789 24th St (cross street, York) in San Francisco. The show runs through Nov. 9. Showtimes are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Admission is $26 on Wednesdays, $28 on Thursdays and Sundays and $32 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are available at the box office, (415) 647-2822 or Call Merle Goldstone for group sales, (415) 291-9566. Discounts are available for students, seniors, disabled and union members.


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